Claire Autruong: Ballots and bullets

If Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., has his way, District of Columbia license plates may exchange the slogan “Taxation Without Representation” to “Representation Without Power.”

While D.C. plates have long carried the old Revolutionary War motto to protest the District’s lack of voting representation in Congress, these past months under the Obama administration mark the closest D.C. has ever come to gaining a vote in the House.

The Senate passed the D.C. Voting Rights Act in late February, clearing the way for a vote in the House that many activists believed would be a mere formality. Enter Ensign and the gun amendment that has stalled the D.C. Voting Rights Act in its tracks.

Ensign’s amendment to the bill significantly undoes many of the D.C. City Council’s gun control provisions, including safe storage laws, registration requirements and background check frequency for gun owners. It also significantly limits D.C. government’s ability to legislate future firearms laws.

Under no circumstances should District residents accept a D.C. Voting Rights Act with the gun amendment attached to it. What is the point of gaining a voting representative at the cost of being able to legislate D.C.’s own gun laws?

There are two entirely separate questions at issue here. The first is whether D.C. should have a vote in Congress. The second, entirely unrelated question is whether D.C.’s local gun laws are in compliance with the Second Amendment and the Supreme Court’s District of Columbia v. Heller ruling that struck down the District’s handgun law. Tying the two questions together in one bill is absurd and a disservice to both issues.

The main argument against D.C.’s right to a vote involves constitutionality – a matter for the courts to decide after the bill clears Congress – but assuming the constitutionality of the bill, it is made unacceptable by the gun amendment. If D.C. begins its existence as a voting entity by curtailing the autonomy of local government, it opens the door for the Congressional abuses a voting representative is supposed to prevent.

Supporters of the amendment and Ensign himself in a Washington Post op-ed accused detractors denying citizens’ Second Amendment rights and being afraid that the amendment would have widespread support. Those against the gun amendment have accused Ensign of spreading a pro-gun agenda on behalf of the National Rifle Association.

Both sides miss the point. It is not a gun control bill – it’s a voting rights bill. People should be against the amendment because it fouls up the voting rights question with the highly emotional gun control question, and Ensign and his supporters should not dismiss criticism of the amendment as the whining of gun control activists.

Should the constitutionality of D.C.’s gun laws be examined? Absolutely. Should Ensign continue to promote the important issue of Second Amendment rights? Yes. But not in this manner. There is no reason to muddy the waters of the voting act in this fashion.

If nonvoting Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., fails in her ongoing bid to prevent the amendment from being placed on the House bill, District residents should refuse to bite the bullet and accept this half measure.

Gaining a vote is important, but not at the cost of allowing Congress to continue to tread on us.

The writer, a senior majoring in history, was The Hatchet’s fall 2008 opinions editor.

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