A Cry from the Heart of DC

ERNEST B. FURGURSON

November 10, 1991|By ERNEST B. FURGURSON | ERNEST B. FURGURSON,Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- While politicians squabble over the meaning of last Tuesday's voting, few have given attention to a local vote that has national implications as both parties look ahead to election-year debate over crime and what to do about it.

Here in the District of Columbia, voters roared that they have had enough of murder and mayhem. The one political group that heard them loud and clear was the firearms industry: within hours after polls closed, the gun lobby was trying to reverse the will of the people.

By a margin of more than three to one, Washingtonians voted to hold those who make and sell assault weapons liable for injuries done by such guns. The measure carried every ward, white and black, poor and affluent.

Naturally, the National Rifle Association, heavily funded by the gun industry, was upset at the unexpectedly solid decision of voters who have lived too long in a town known as the murder capital of America. In Congress, two right-wing friends of the NRA have already put in bills to overrule the new law.

Considering the gun lobby's vaunted clout on Capitol Hill, the blocking effort may succeed. After all, many of the Americans who send representatives from the provinces to Washington enjoy the idea that year after year, their national capital also leads the nation in murders per capita. They like to criticize heavily-black Washington, and the murder rate is one of their favorite jeering points.

If somehow Congress should not overturn the District's new law, there is a further possibility that the courts will. The only certainty is that the gun lobby will fight the measure at every level, until every possibility is exhausted.

The lobby contends that any gun control law at all is wrong and unconstitutional, because it takes away hunting rifles and the personal defense weapons needed by well-behaved, God-fearing citizens. Regulations that seem innocuous to others, that would do nothing to take away such weapons, are opposed on the theory that once any control becomes law, tighter and tighter laws are sure to follow.

Thus the lobby opposes the District of Columbia measure as it would any other, however weak. But the NRA takes a particular interest in this one because it aims directly at the gun trade, rather than the private gun owner.

At the Capitol, some conservatives will be happy to vote against the local law because they object politically to whatever Washington voters do. For decades, they opposed home rule for the District. With President Bush's approval, they have voted to prevent the District government's use of its citizens' local tax money to finance legal abortions.

Last year, this gun control measure was approved by the City Council, but then taken back when the new mayor warned that it could endanger congressional approval of a desperately needed million in federal money.

This year, a grass-roots petition drive supported by black churches put it on the ballot. Now right-wingers in Congress will be glad to earn points with the NRA by taking another free whack at Washingtonians' right to rule themselves.

In Congress and perhaps the courts, there will be extended arguments about the power of one locality to fine or punish an industry elsewhere for what is done with assault weapons on the streets of Washington. It is a reasonable constitutional question, and if we had a reasonable Supreme Court we could anticipate living calmly with whatever it rules.

But those who originated this measure were not thinking in lofty constitutional terms. Neither is the gun lobby, and neither are the congresspeople who try to block it.

On one side, it is a cry from the heart, from citizens who have a realistic gun control law but realize that has little effect when criminals can merely cross a river to buy weapons. This law is an effort to reach beyond the district line, to warn an industry that fattens on human misery.

The measure does not affect ordinary handguns, rifles or shotguns. It applies only to rapid-firing assault weapons like those used legally by armies and anti-terrorist agents. They are increasingly popular among drug salesmen and street bullies who use them for holdups, gang fights and drive-by shootings.

On the civilian market, these weapons have no purpose except murder. President Bush knew that when he banned further imports but allowed domestic makers to keep selling them. Congressmen know that when they vote to overrule the district law. So do the dealers. So do their luckless victims.

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