After years of raised expectations and crushed hopes, just about every District resident thought 2010 would be the year that the city’s voting rights bill would finally meet congressional approval.
Such was not the case this week, however, after the controversial legislation –which was poised to give the District a voice on Capitol Hill and repeal the bulk of its gun control laws – was struck down due to a lack of support.
“It is outrageous that as D.C. struggles for self-determination, a provision would be put in place—a threat of an amendment that undercuts D.C.’s rights—to make decisions for itself about issues like guns and violence,” Hilary Shelton, director for advocacy at the Washington bureau NAACP, said of the bill’s failure.
“We’re being forced to take that along without being giving any inkling of voting rights,” he continued. ?“In this case, what they’re saying is that if D.C. wants to have one voting member in the House of Representatives, it has to also agree to eviscerate all of its gun safety laws in a city that has one of the highest gun-related homicide rates of children.”
Alluding to President Barack Obama’s White House tenure and Democratic control of the Congress, retired University of Maryland political analyst Ron Walters said this was one of the prime eras in which the bill could have passed, since it now looks like Democrats will lose seats in the House and Senate in the fall.
“And, that’s the real problem,” Walters said. “They were trying to get it passed through because of the timing question, but a lot of people were simply not willing to extend the NRA’s (National Rifle Association’s) control over the right to carry a weapon in the District of Columbia.”
Still, he added, “Although people are sorry to see it go down, I think there will be other times in the current administration that it might pass.”
The former University of Maryland at College Park professor said the issue could be attached to an upcoming piece of legislation.
“Even though this was a prime moment to try to get it through, I don’t think that by any stretch of the imagination that this will be the last time that it can come up,” he said.
Especially with supporters such as President Obama behind it. In a recent statement, the president said the bill’s passage would have been reminiscent of President Lincoln’s emancipation of the District’s enslaved citizens.
“D.C. residents pay federal taxes and serve honorably in our armed services, they do not have a vote in Congress or full autonomy over local issues,” he wrote before urging Congress “to finally pass legislation that provides D.C. residents with voting representation and to take steps to improve the Home Rule Charter.”
Ward 8 resident and Democratic activist Phil Pannell said he was heartbroken over the defeat, as he felt it was residents’ best chance in years to accomplish a House vote.
“Now it seems as if the window is closing on that,”he lamented. “It almost seems to be unreachable. We’ve always hoped for the best, but right now, it does not look good for the District and definitely shows the power of the gun lobby.”
Meanwhile, the amendment, which was introduced in 2009 by Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), has been repeatedly cited as the one issue that blocked the bill’s passage. Last year, the legislation passed in the Senate, but because of the last minute tack-on, it stalled in the House of Representatives.
Now, the measure may become another lightning rod in the anticipated showdown between Mayor Adrian Fenty and Council Chairman Vincent Gray in the coming primary elections.
While Gray had implied his refusal to support the bill unless significant changes were made to the gun amendment, Fenty assumed the position that it was more important for the bill to garner Congress’ s nod of approval and then mull over its gun control content.
At-large Councilman Michael Brown stated just hours prior to the bill’s death that its merits were being compromised by imposition of a“dangerous and ideological” amendment that threatened to denigrate locally-imposed gun control laws and strip the District of its authority to regulate or legislate them.
He added, however, that the recent spate of shootings in the District should have served as a wake-up call for why the gun control amendment should be rejected.
But Ensign, who has been accused of blocking congressional representation from the District’s citizenry, had offered in a recent Washington Post opinion piece that many of them preferred more guns over a House representative.
Mary Wilson, president of the national League of Women Voters, said her organization was pleased that the bill wasn’t going to come up with the gun amendment attached.
“But we’re still very much committed to gaining D.C. voting rights,” she said. “Therefore, we’ll keep working and hopefully encourage representatives to bring up a clean bill—one that it doesn’t have extraneous things attached to it.”
Still, in spite of the bill’s failure, At-large District of Columbia Councilman Kwame Brown, credited Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton’s efforts, saying that although she had a role in pulling the legislation, that he believed she had done a “phenomenal job” trying to get it through.
“She did more than anyone I know and it was unfortunate that the gun amendment was attached to it,” Brown said.