In the most far-reaching gun control action ever taken in the United States, District of Columbia Mayor Marion Barry announced Tuesday that he had signed a bill that makes manufacturers and sellers legally liable for deaths and injuries caused by the most fearsome assault weapons.
“We don’t need these guns on the street,” the outgoing mayor said. The measure had been passed last week by the City Council.
A spokesman for the National Rifle Assn. accused the city government of “cheap theatrics” and predicted that the measure will not stand up in court.
Under a special review process that applies only to District of Columbia laws, Congress may veto the controversial gun control measure. Advocates and opponents both braced for a major fight on Capitol Hill when the new Congress convenes next month.
“These weapons are so dangerous that the manufacturers and dealers have to know they are going to be used to kill people,” said Michael Beard, president of the Coalition to Stop Handgun Violence.
Richard Gardiner, NRA director of state and local affairs, retorted, “The whole concept of punishing the innocent manufacturer, who has no control over the sale of a gun, for the act of a criminal flies in the face of everything we’ve developed in the common law for six centuries.”
Backers of the bill said that, even if Congress disapproves the legislation and President Bush agrees to kill the measure, it still may serve as a model for other cities that are plagued by drug-related murders, such as Los Angeles, New York and Detroit.
However, Gardiner said that laws in 39 states prevent cities from passing any firearms legislation.
In 1987, California enacted a law requiring owners of most assault weapons to register them or face fines and criminal penalties.
Although it already has one of the stiffest gun control laws on the books, Washington has the highest homicide rate in the nation, with a record 465 murders so far this year. District of Columbia police say that nearly all of the guns used in crimes here were brought into the city from neighboring Maryland or Virginia, where gun laws are far less stringent.
The new legislation would allow private citizens to file lawsuits for damages against the makers and sellers of fast-firing Street Sweepers, AK-47s, Uzis and similar assault weapons.
Congress does not interfere frequently with the D.C. City Council’s actions, but once measures become controversial they usually are turned down.
Under the review procedure, opponents of the new gun law will have to move within 30 legislative days to get a resolution of disapproval through both the House and Senate and then get President Bush to sign it.
Supporters of the law hope to bottle it up in the District of Columbia Committee, headed by Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Berkeley), who is usually a strong proponent of home rule for Washington.
“From a legislative perspective, (supporters of the bill) have the advantage, and it’s a significant advantage,” said a spokesman for Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.).
But Richard Dykema, chief adviser to Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Long Beach), predicted that Congress will overturn the law.
“The city of Washington has far overstepped its bounds in trying to put gun (firms that) make assault weapons out of business,” Dykema said. “I don’t think Congress would let anybody get away with it--even a state.
Rohrabacher, a member of the House District of Columbia Committee, was traveling in the Middle East and could not be reached for comment.