WASHINGTON - Just weeks after allowing the decade-old federal ban on assault weapons to expire, the House voted yesterday to repeal the District of Columbia's tough 28-year-old gun control law in a move that thrust the emotional issue into the election year spotlight.
The bill is not expected to reach the president's desk his year.
The vote was intended by the House Republican leadership to force Democrats to make an uncomfortable choice shortly before Election Day.
"It's important to put people on the record," said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas.
A number of Democrats in tight races in rural southern and western districts voted for the measure.
A National Rifle Association spokesman said the vote would be used to help determine the 4 million-member group's endorsements in congressional races.
"This is election year politics," said Rep. Lois Capps, a California Democrat who voted against the measure.
The NRA's allies in Congress fear that the bill could become a vehicle in the Senate for an effort by gun control advocates to revive the nationwide assault weapons ban.
An effort this year to pass an NRA-backed bill to shield gun makers and sellers from lawsuits related to gun violence died in the narrowly divided Senate after gun control amendments were attached to it.
Democrats have shied away from the gun issue, believing that their 2000 presidential candidate, Al Gore, lost support in rural states because he advocated gun control.
Critics of the House action questioned repealing the law at a time when Washington was considered a top target for terrorists and was still recovering from snipers who killed 10 people and terrorized the Washington area in 2002.
"This is sheer lunacy," Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who serves as the District of Columbia's nonvoting delegate to Congress, said, calling the measure a "new low for this body."
"We are spending millions of dollars to protect the nation's capital from another terrorist attack, yet we're passing legislation that would invite terrorists to bring assault weapons into the heart of the nation's capital," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman, a California Democrat.
Pointing to a photo of a semiautomatic rifle, Waxman said that if the House measure became law, "somebody can have this assault weapon and stick it out a window on Pennsylvania Avenue."
The measure drew the opposition of not only Washington's mayor and police chief but also a number of business groups, which said in a letter to lawmakers that repealing the gun law "is the last thing the city needs right now" after working hard to recover from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which devastated its economically important tourism industry.
Critics also accused Congress of meddling in local affairs.
The bill's sponsor, Republican Rep. Mark E. Souder of Indiana, argued that it would restore "2nd Amendment rights" to Washington residents and allow law-abiding citizens to own guns to defend themselves in their homes.
Proponents of the measure argued that the law has failed to stem gun violence.
"When you control guns, the bad guys have plenty, and the good guys can't defend themselves," said Rep. Zach Wamp, a Tennessee Republicazn.
Washington had 248 homicides last year, down from 482 in 1991. This year, the city has had 149 killings, about a 24 percent decline from the same period a year earlier.
Fifty-two Democrats - many from rural and Southern and Western districts - joined 198 Republicans in voting for the measure.
Twenty-two Republicans, including moderates from the Northeast and Midwest, joined 148 Democrats and one independent in voting against the bill.
All California Republicans voted for the measure except Rep. Mary Bono of Palm Springs, who opposed it. Reps. Joe Baca of San Bernardino and Dennis Cardoza of Atwater were the only California Democrats to support the measure.
The other California Democrats voted against it.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.