Evan Schwartz: Trading safety for a vote

D.C. may finally get a voting member in the House of Representatives, but it looks like it will come at the cost of further weakening Washington’s already diminished gun control laws.

As Congress moved closer to passing a D.C. voting rights bill last year, pro-gun Republicans in Congress attached a key addendum that would give Washingtonians a representative in the House, but only if the city repealed its formerly strong anti-gun laws. The move proved to be a bullet to the heart of the bill, stalling it indefinitely because D.C. politicians could not agree on pushing it forward.

But in a recently announced tit-for-tat decision, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton says she will drop her opposition to a gun amendment attached to the legislation in exchange for a vote in the House. The amendment would essentially wipe out local gun laws in D.C. The current laws are particularly harsh on unregistered handguns and semi-automatic weapons, and the proposed bill makes it nearly impossible for the D.C. Council to enact new gun laws in the future.

Both Norton and Mayor Adrian Fenty seem to back this compromise. But for a city with such a high crime rate and a startling amount of illegal guns and gun offenders, relaxing gun laws and legalizing firearms may cost lives.

While efforts to reduce crime in Washington have been successful over the last decade, D.C. still boasted a top-five murder rate in the first half of 2009, only falling behind such hotbeds of crime like New Orleans, Baltimore and Detroit. The Metropolitan Police Department has been instrumental in this crackdown, seizing thousands of illegal guns each year. According to their own crime statistics and a Washington Examiner report, MPD seized around 1,900 guns in 2008, the year before the handgun ban was reversed.

Flooding the streets with more weapons is not the way to reduce crime. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, along with the mayors of several other major cities, started a group called Mayors Against Illegal Guns in 2006. Fenty is a member of this group, but he has voiced his support of this compromised voting rights bill to the Washington Post.

Obviously, voting rights for the District is an important issue – perhaps the most important political issue for residents who have grown increasingly frustrated with their lack of Congressional representation. President Obama has made his support for this bill clear, without mentioning the gun control changes that would be implemented if it passes. But this bill has other implications. It is very clear to me that this gun bill, and its triggerman Senator John Ensign, R-Nev., aims to please the NRA and its enormous membership. With tea partiers gaining more mainstream relevance with an anti-tax, pro-gun rights platform, supporting the bill may be politically prudent for Obama. Not only does D.C. get a vote in the House, but NRA and other pro-gun lobbies gain a victory against one of the toughest gun laws in the nation.

Politicians like Ensign are visitors when they come to Washington, not full-time residents. They have a political duty to their constituents and their party at large, and they come to Washington to conduct business. That business can often include sniping at potential laws like the voting rights bill and clipping their own type of unrelated earmarks onto legislation.

This week, a pro-gun rally will be held just outside of the District; the protesters will carry their loaded weapons with them as they demonstrate against gun control in our nation’s capital. Last month in Southeast D.C., a group of men pointed and fired an AK-47, a 9mm handgun and a .45 caliber handgun out of the window of their car. The shooting left five people wounded and four dead, including a 16-year-old girl caught in the crossfire. If the gun laws in Washington are successfully rolled back, those two handguns will be easier to purchase and carry in D.C.

This is not the first time the NRA has lobbied to change gun laws in the nation’s capital, and it will not be the last time. They are an extremely influential group, and have engaged in an incredibly savvy type of political maneuvering – D.C. gets a vote, and the NRA gets a major political victory. Norton, Fenty and Obama say that achieving D.C. voting rights is the most important issue facing the District today, but perhaps they are making a hollow point.

The writer, a junior majoring in journalism and mass communication, is a Hatchet columnist.

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