Navigating the Gun Control Waters

Gun Sense and Nonsense
(New York Times)

Published: February 27, 2009

The Supreme Court brushed past flimsy arguments by the gun lobby this week to uphold an important restriction on gun ownership that protects public safety.

The 7-to-2 decision upheld a broad reading of a 1996 federal law written by Senator Frank Lautenberg, Democrat of New Jersey, that bars people convicted of crimes involving domestic violence from owning guns. A narrow interpretation of the law, excluding domestic abusers convicted of a generic charge of battery, would have rearmed thousands of dangerous people.

The ruling was the court’s first on guns since last year’s landmark decision striking down the District of Columbia’s ban on possessing handguns in the home. It was an encouraging sign that the court sees no blanket constitutional barrier to common-sense regulation of firearms. It is notable that not even the two dissenters in the case — Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Antonin Scalia — asserted that depriving domestic abusers of guns raises a Second Amendment issue.

Unfortunately, the same good sense on gun violence did not prevail in Congress. On Thursday, the Senate voted, 61-to-37, to end a longstanding affront to democracy by giving residents of Washington a voting representative in Congress. In a classic bit of political horse trading, the measure would actually enlarge the House by two seats: one for the overwhelmingly Democratic District of Columbia, and one for Utah, whose population growth justifies a seat that would likely go to the Republicans.

But this overdue step came with a dreadful caveat — an amendment from Senator John Ensign, a Nevada Republican, that would override the judgment of District of Columbia officials and create serious threats to public safety and homeland security in the capital.

Among other things, the amendment’s wacky provisions would make it much harder for police to trace crime guns by repealing all registration requirements. The amendment also would bar Washington from enacting laws or regulations that may discourage private gun ownership or use, including by children or felons. It would lift a ban on gun possession by anyone voluntarily committed to a mental institution in the last five years and end a ban on .50 caliber sniper rifles and military-style semiautomatic assault weapons. All of this under the phony guise of complying with last year’s Supreme Court ruling.

Passage of the amendment, the result of fearful bipartisan pandering to the National Rifle Association, has grievously marred an overdue victory for Washington to have a vote in Congress. It is up to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to makes sure that the measure that passes her chamber and eventually emerges from conference with the Senate advances democracy without setting back prudent and constitutional gun control.


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