WASHINGTON – The House moved Wednesday to compel the nation's capital to broaden the rights of its residents to buy and own firearms, including semiautomatic weapons.
Critics, led by the District of Columbia's sole delegate to Congress, decried the action. They said the vote tramples on the District's rights to govern itself and could endanger both residents and political dignitaries who so often travel across the city.
But the National Rifle Association-backed bill passed easily, 266-152, with supporters saying they were determined to give D.C. residents the same Second Amendment right of self-defense that has been available to other Americans.
Many of those speaking for the bill in debate that went well into the night Tuesday were conservative Democrats from rural districts that strongly support gun rights. Eighty-five Democrats voted for the bill.
"Number one, I'm a pro-gun Democrat," said Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark. "Number 2, if the government of the District of Columbia can take your guns away from you in our nation's capital, Prescott, Arkansas, and many other small towns across the country could be next."
The legislation is unlikely to be taken up in the Senate in the few remaining weeks of this session, but it served both to give lawmakers a pro-gun vote shortly before the election and demonstrate the continuing political clout of the NRA.
The bill, sponsored by Mississippi freshman Democrat Travis Childers, repeals the District's semiautomatic handgun ban and overturns D.C. law requiring that firearms kept in the home be locked up and inoperable. It allows D.C. residents to purchase guns from federally licensed dealers in Maryland and Virginia and repeals what critics claimed were burdensome registration requirements.
The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 vote last June, ruled that the 32-year-old District ban on handgun possession violated Second Amendment rights to bear arms. The D.C. Council responded the next month with a temporary measure allowing possession of unloaded weapons in homes but keeping the ban on semiautomatics.
On Tuesday the council went further, voting to allow residents to own most semiautomatic pistols and removing the requirement that weapons be stored unloaded and disassembled or secured with trigger locks.
That wasn't enough for the NRA and its congressional allies, which accused the council of trying to defy the Supreme Court ruling.
"This Congress has lost faith in the willingness of the District of Columbia to defend the Second Amendment," said Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind.
But nonvoting Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton said Congress was violating the District's home rule rights by imposing federal dictates, something it would do to no other American city. "The House has the gall to ask for a vote to nullify the gun laws in my district, depriving my district of the right to protect itself and visitors like yourselves while denying me a vote on this floor on passage. Have you no shame?"
Norton unsuccessfully tried to move a bill that would have merely given the District 180 days to come up with new regulations complying with the Supreme Court ruling. The White House opposed that approach and supported the Childers measure, saying it would "immediately advance Second Amendment principles."
"I ask Congress, leave us alone and let us do our job," D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz said Tuesday.