Eight days after a gunman killed 49 people in an Orlando nightclub, Representative Thomas Massie of Kentucky introduced legislation in Congress that he claimed would make Americans safer.
The proposals, attached as riders to appropriations bills, had nothing to do with the Bluegrass state or federal gun laws. Instead, one of the provisions sought to restrict the District of Columbia from spending money to enforce its strict regulations on who may carry firearms, and another would eliminate many of the District’s gun-free zones. Loosening firearm restrictions, Massie said in an emailed statement to The Trace, would give residents and visitors to the capital city an opportunity to arm themselves and possibly prevent another terrorist attack.
The measures — along with a third from Arizona Representative David Schweikert that would have made it easier for Washingtonians to obtain a concealed carry permit — died quickly in committee. But even in failure, they served a purpose for the lawmakers who introduced them, says Michael D. Brown, one of the shadow senators elected by Washingtonians solely to advocate for D.C. voting rights.
“If you’re running for reelection in Alabama or Texas — somewhere with really loose gun laws — and you can’t curry favor there, you can come to Washington and do it here,” he says.
Attempting to defang Washington’s tight restrictions is one way for a conservative legislator to score political points. And it isn’t just the home crowd some lawmakers are seeking to win over: Trying to roll back D.C.’s gun laws has proved an effective way for lawmakers to raise their ranking from the National Rifle Association.
In March 2015, Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Jim Jordan of Ohio introduced a bill that would have gutted all of D.C.’s gun laws. That measure failed. But Rubio, who was weeks away from launching his presidential campaign, saw a bump in his NRA rating after he introduced the legislation — from a B+ to an A.
“I’m not even sure he was much interested in what happened to our gun laws, but he saw us as an inviting target,” says Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s nonvoting Congressional representative.
Rubio’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
The District of Columbia has some of the toughest gun restrictions in the U.S. All firearms must be registered, all sales must be conducted through a licensed dealer, and people applying for a concealed carry permit must show a “good reason” to obtain one, although that restriction is currently being challenged in court. As of November 2015, the D.C. police department granted only 48 of the 233 the concealed carry permit applications it received since applications opened in October 2014, good for a denial rate of nearly 80 percent.
Until 2008, handguns were banned from D.C. homes, but that law was overturned in the landmark Supreme Court case District of Columbia v. Heller, which affirmed the individual right to own guns under the Second Amendment.
The District’s gun laws, like all of its other laws, are subject to Congressional review. That’s because Congress has exclusive jurisdiction over the District, and it may create new laws, do away with existing ones — or even dismiss the elected government.
Typically, Congress does not interfere with Washington’s local governance in such a dramatic way. The exceptions tend to involve politically charged issues. In the late 1990s, Congress imposed a highly criticized ban on funding for needle exchange programs in the District that wasn’t lifted until 2007. More recently, Congress blocked D.C.’s efforts to establish a tax on marijuana, which it had decriminalized in 2014, angering local officials who saw the tax as an effective means of generating much-needed revenue.
Gutting D.C.’s gun laws is the newest fad. Since 2010, members of Congress have introduced at least seven bills that tried to eliminate some aspect of D.C.’s strict gun laws, or remove funding from enforcing them.
Norton says the repeated attempts to meddle in the District’s affairs distract from what should be the real priority: curbing the city’s gun violence problem.
Last summer, D.C. saw its highest number of homicides in nearly a decade — up 54 percent from the year before — and there have been 85 homicides so far this year. Almost all of the killings were committed with guns.
“When that kind of increase occurs in a big city like this, everybody ought to have hands off except those who are trying to make sure this spike, this increase, does not continue,” Norton said. “I’m not even sure that the members who’ve been interfering with our gun laws even know that there’s been a spike, or even care.”
Norton says that when legislation that would ease gun restrictions are proposed, she has to scramble to make sure they don’t pass. In the most recent instance in June, the three measures failed within a week of their introduction — which Norton said may have to do with timing, as the riders were introduced just days after the deadliest mass shooting in American history. Along with lobbying her colleagues in the House and Senate, she says her team will sometimes reach out directly to the constituents of the representative who introduced the bill, by appearing on local and social media to let them know of their lawmaker’s actions.
“The point we make in return is, ‘You got your members here paying attention to another member’s district, did you know that?’” Norton said.
Along with the yearly attempts to unwind D.C.’s gun laws, the city is also locked in its legal battle with national gun rights groups who have sued to overturn its conceal carry ordinance. Two active lawsuits claim that D.C.’s “good reason” requirement violates Second Amendment rights. The cases are set to be heard later this year.
“It’s been ground zero, in a real sense, for the gun battle in America,” Brown, the D.C. shadow senator, said.
The only way for the District to shed Congressional oversight — and ensure that it can set its own gun policy — would be for it to achieve statehood. Making that idea a reality has been a steep climb for D.C.’s long-running self-governance movement.
The closest proponents have come to achieving statehood through federal legislation came in 2009, when the Senate passed the D.C. Voting Rights Act. Democratic leaders pulled the bill the next year.
The reason: Republicans had attached language that would have repealed most of D.C.’s gun laws and prevented the District from enacting new ones.
[Photo: AP/J. Scott Applewhite]