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Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton

Representing the District of Columbia

Places in Washington DC

Despite Flaws in D.C. Gun Amendment, Norton and Gray Speak Out Against Danger to the City

Jul 17, 2014
Press Release

WASHINGTON, DC – At Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton’s (D-DC) hastily organized press conference on Capitol Hill today with D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, Metropolitan Police Department Assistant Chief Alfred Durham (Chief Lanier is out of town), and representatives from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, and DC Vote to discuss the amendment to block D.C. from enforcing its gun laws, Norton called on the President, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), and the Senate to remove the amendment from the final bill.  The amendment, sponsored by Representative Thomas Massie (R-KY), was passed by the House yesterday as part of the Fiscal Year 2015 D.C. Appropriations bill.

Norton said that the amendment was so ineptly drafted that it would be virtually unenforceable without years of complicated litigation.  However, she warned, “Making a big city, which is also the nation’s capital and a prime terrorist target, one of the most permissive gun jurisdictions in the country would be madness.”

The amendment appears to have intended to allow the carrying of a gun, openly or concealed, on streets in the nation's capital; the possession of assault weapons, including .50 caliber sniper rifles and magazines holding an unlimited number of bullets; the private sale of guns without background checks; the purchase of guns with no waiting period; and, the purchase of an unlimited number of guns in one day.  The federal courts have already found D.C.’s post-Heller gun laws to be constitutional and consistent with the Supreme Court’s Heller decision.

Her full remarks are below:

We thank Mayor Vincent Gray, and, with Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier out of town, Assistant Chief of Police Alfred Durham, as well as our friends from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, and DC Vote for coming on short notice. We will need D.C. officials and residents to move immediately, taking all necessary steps, to ensure the District’s gun safety laws remain intact, beginning with hearing from the top officials charged with public safety.

I was at the White House yesterday on an unrelated matter soon after speaking on the House floor against the gun amendment offered by Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky.  I spoke with a high-ranking White House official and asked him to begin working with the Senate to ensure that the Massie amendment does make it into the final legislation.  In addition, the District’s marijuana decriminalization law became effective yesterday only to be ensnared in a new fight to use the appropriations process to overturn it.

Like the gun amendment, the marijuana decriminalization amendment, introduced by Rep. Andy Harris, is attached to the D.C. appropriations bill, which is part of the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations bill.  That bill also contains the annual anti-choice amendment that stops the District from using its local funds for abortion services for poor women, a rider we have eliminated before only to have it return in the Republican House.

We believe both the gun amendment and the marijuana amendment can and must be removed if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his colleagues adhere to their view that Congress, under the Home Rule Act, has devolved local law-making authority to the local D.C. government with explicit exceptions that do not include these riders.

We appreciate the Administration’s Statement of Administration Policy issued before the D.C. Appropriations bill went to the floor and before the gun amendment had been offered on the floor, which says that the Administration “strongly opposes” both the marijuana decriminalization and the abortion riders because they violate the “principle of States’ rights” and of “District home rule.” Because of that strong, principled rationale we expect a similar position from the Administration on the gun amendment.

We focus this morning particularly on the gun amendment bill offered and approved only yesterday because it presents a clear and present danger to our more than 600,000 residents, as well as to the 20 million visitors who come to the nation’s capital annually from all over the world and the cabinet and other federal officials who frequent our public places.  The District’s gun laws are under attack every year, but working here in the House, we have been able to keep the most serious from coming to the floor or to remove several anti-home-rule provisions in the Senate.

Even with an open rule on the D.C. Appropriations bill, amendments to a complicated gun safety law cannot be appropriately framed. We were able to defeat Rep Massie’s first attempt with a point of order, but he returned and got it through yesterday.  Still, his amendment is fraught with unintended consequences and confusion that would make it difficult to enforce. Unlike Rep. Massie, more experienced House Members have been trying to eliminate all the District’s gun laws but they have done so through a pending, detailed bill, not a 69-word appropriations rider.  That pending gun bill has not moved. 

Both the Massie gun amendment and the Harris marijuana amendment show why an appropriations bill, which is about funding existing programs, is an inappropriate vehicle to try to change or make new complicated substantive law.  Neither the Harris nor the Massie amendments would overturn any D.C. law. Instead, they seek to block D.C. from using its local funds to enforce or amend its local laws. Trying to block or effectively amend existing laws through funding limitations creates unintended consequences and problems interpreting the effects of the amendments.

While the city and I are still reviewing the implications of the Massie amendment, it already seems that Rep. Massie may have made some of our gun laws more loose and some more restrictive. Rep. Massie prohibits D.C. from using its local funds to enforce four of D.C.’s post-Heller gun bills. Under one reading, Rep. Massie has blocked D.C. from preventing people from carrying, openly or concealed, assault weapons with magazines that can carry hundreds of bullets on D.C.’s streets.  Under another reading, D.C. may be left only with unconstitutional pre-Heller laws, which are legally unenforceable. Under a third reading, the amendment has not only blocked four laws from being enforced, but has also blocked the enforcement of the laws these four laws amended.

In short, it is technically impossible to forthrightly overturn four complicated D.C. gun laws, meticulously enacted by the Council, with a few words in an appropriations rider.  To clearly overturn our gun laws, it would take a bill as careful as the Council’s laws, enacted to meet the requirements of the Heller decision.  D.C.’s gun laws have survived all challenges thus far in the federal courts, which have upheld the District’s registration requirements, assault weapons ban, and ban on large capacity ammunition feeding devices.

We, of course, will argue that regardless of where one stands on D.C.’s gun laws, on its face, the Massie amendment is incapable of straight forward analysis and enforcement without inviting complicated litigation that could go on for years.  However, allowing an amendment intended to nullify the city’s gun laws to get this far in Congress could not be more dangerous to the nation’s capital. What Rep. Massie apparently intended was to keep the D.C. government, including the Metropolitan Police Department, from enforcing local laws that prohibit the private sale of guns without background checks; the carrying of guns, openly or concealed, on the streets of the nation’s capital; the purchase of guns with no waiting period; the purchase of an unlimited number of guns in one day; the possession of assault weapons, including .50 caliber sniper rifles; and the possession of magazines holding an unlimited number of bullets.

Making a big city, which is also the nation’s capital, and a prime terrorist target, one of the most permissive gun jurisdiction in the country would be madness.  The reasons for eliminating these riders in the final bill abound.  We ask the President, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and the Senate to choose any one of the reasons but do not let the gun amendment imperil our city and all who live and come here.