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Gun law dispute sinks voting rights bill for DC

By Jessica Gresko

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, April 21 2010 9:32 a.m. MDT

A scrolling electronic sign with the amount of federal taxes paid by District of Columbia residents is seen in Washington, on Tuesday.

Jacquelyn Martin, Associated Press

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WASHINGTON — For some residents of the nation's capital, a bill to give them a voting member of Congress wasn't worth the price: severely weakened gun laws.

"As much as I want the vote in the city, I think the gun ban is hugely important," said Betsy Cutler, 41, a paralegal who lives in Adams Morgan, a neighborhood of bars and restaurants where she has heard gunfire more than once.

House members had been expected to vote this week on a bill that would have granted, for the first time, the District of Columbia's 600,000 residents a voting representative. But politicians said Tuesday they had decided to pull the measure, calling an amendment supported by the National Rifle Association destructive to D.C.'s gun laws.

The NRA pushed to bar the city from prohibiting or interfering with the public carrying of firearms, either concealed or openly. Opponents said the amendment would have made it easy for people to carry firearms without permits and would have stopped D.C. from prohibiting guns in city-controlled buildings.

NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said the measure was needed because the city has not complied with a 2008 Supreme Court ruling requiring it to revise its gun laws.

A federal judge in D.C. recently ruled, however, that limitations on gun ownership that Washington put in place after the ruling were acceptable. Dick Heller, the plaintiff in the original case, had challenged the new regulations.

The voting rights bill would have increased full House membership from 435 to 437, giving D.C. residents a vote while adding a temporary at-large seat for Republican-leaning Utah, which narrowly missed out on getting an extra seat after the 2000 census.

Government worker and lifelong D.C. resident Yvonne Cooper, 51, said gun rights and voting rights shouldn't be linked. And bike messenger Derrick Stewart, 48, who was born in Washington, said accepting the change would be "selling out."

D.C. resident David Slenk said he represents a minority of people who are glad the bill didn't move forward.

"I fully understand that not many people think that way nowadays," the 23-year-old said. "I think it was set up as a protection so that D.C. would not get undue influence because the federal government is here, and I think that is appropriate."

Saydah Cruz, 22, who works in D.C., said she too supports the city's strict gun laws. "I am surprised, but I think it was for the best," she said of the decision to pull back the bill. "We want to keep crime rates down and safety up."

City politicians had lined up to oppose the measure before it was pulled. At least six of the 13 members of the District of Columbia Council, including its chairman, said they would not support the bill if it weakened local gun laws.

But the city's mayor, Adrian Fenty, had a different attitude. He had said he supported efforts to go forward with the bill, believing that gun rights advocates would try to weaken the city's gun laws even without a voting rights bill.

Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who represents the district but is not allowed to vote on the House floor, sponsored the bill and supported pulling it rather than accepting the gun amendment.

Norton had said she was willing to work with a Senate version of the bill passed last year with a weaker gun amendment, but she ultimately determined that language the NRA wanted — it had support in the House — was not acceptable.

It wasn't the first time Norton had seen such a bill fail. Most recently, in 2007, the House passed a voting rights bill before it was blocked in the Senate.

"I'm feeling ready for the next fight," said Norton, the city's representative in Congress since 1991. "I was always prepared to be set back."

Associated Press writers Jim Abrams and Nafeesa Syeed contributed to this report.

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