Tuesday, March 10, 2009 | 2 a.m.
- Guns, votes mix well for Ensign (3-2-2009)
- Reid would rather avoid issue of guns in U.S. parks (3-17-2008)
Republican Sen. John Ensign has engineered a major political coup that could leave the District of Columbia with weaker gun laws than those of Las Vegas and thwart a long-sought effort to give residents of the capital voting rights in Congress.
In a victory for gun rights advocates, the Nevada lawmaker led Senate efforts to strike down a gun control law in the capital by adding an amendment to a long-fought bill to give the district a voting representative in Congress.
The amendment stripping out gun restrictions in the capital drew widespread support as moderate Democratic lawmakers were hesitant to confront the powerful gun lobby. Sen. Harry Reid, the majority leader, joined Ensign and 60 other senators in voting for its passage.
Ensign won praise from guns rights advocates, but he is now facing pushback from members of the District of Columbia City Council as well as complaints that he is creating a more lax environment for guns in the nation’s capital than in his home state.
David Catania, a city councilman for more than a decade, said Ensign must have “nothing better to do with his time” than meddle in district affairs.
“With all the problems confronting Nevada, he has time to play city councilman in the District of Columbia?” said Catania, chairman of the council’s health committee.
Catania mused that he should visit Nevada as part of his ongoing research into ways to provide health care coverage, suggesting, “You must have some bang-up system there.”
The amendment threatens to scuttle the entire D.C. voting issue.
The legislation is stalled in the House because members are unwilling to take on the gun lobby. The legislation faces similar amendments on that side of the Capitol, including one put forward by Nevada Republican Rep. Dean Heller.
The underlying issue of district representation is that the 500,000 residents of the capital now have one House member, whose floor vote is advisory only. Under a carefully crafted deal, the district would get its long-wanted seat in the House while Utah, which narrowly missed being granted a new seat during apportionment following the 2000 census, would also get one.
This made politicos happy — the District of Columbia is primarily Democratic, Utah mostly Republican.
But Ensign and others in Congress opposed the deal, which was headed toward passage with President Barack Obama’s support.
The view Ensign holds is shared by other conservatives. They note that the Constitution extends House membership to states only. The district is not a state.
But supporters of the bill are confident that the U.S. Supreme Court would uphold the voting legislation if the issue were to reach that level.
Ensign’s amendment would strike down gun laws the district council passed last year, laws that loosened the rules of gun ownership after the Supreme Court ruled the district’s ban on keeping handguns in homes was unconstitutional.
Ensign’s legislation would replace the new laws with federal regulations.
“We’re just fulfilling our constitutional duty,” Ensign said. “There’s a basic fundamental right to keep and bear arms. And when Washington, D.C., restricts that, it is our constitutional role, I believe, to defend Second Amendment rights.”
Ensign’s amendment would allow gun owners greater rights than they enjoy in Clark County, where residents buying their first gun face a 72-hour cooling-off period before they can take possession. The district had instituted a 10-day cooling-off period, but Ensign’s measure would strike it down to follow the federal instant-check model.
Chris W. Cox, chief lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, said, “we’re very pleased with our Nevada representatives.”
Ensign has long been a gun rights supporter. He stepped into the limelight in a new way this year in part because the ranks of Republican lawmakers have dramatically thinned, said Eric Herzik, the chairman of the political science department at the University of Nevada, Reno.
Among Nevada’s gun owners, Ensign’s work has made him a hero.
Robert Smith, president of the Nevada State Rifle and Pistol Association, said the district was “taking away the rights of those people. Somebody’s got to stand up for them. John’s got the guts to do it.”