Conservative Orange County Rep. Dana Rohrabacher will square off today with one of California’s most liberal congressmen in a debate over a controversial District of Columbia assault weapons initiative that has raised questions about both gun control and democratic ideals.
Rohrabacher (R-Long Beach), who represents northwestern Orange County, has introduced legislation that would overturn a referendum that holds manufacturers of certain assault weapons, regardless of where they are based, liable for injuries or deaths that the guns inflict in the murder-ravaged capital city. The measure was overwhelmingly approved Nov. 5 by the district’s voters.
“My objective is to lay down the law to the District of Columbia,” Rohrabacher said. “If they’re going to be taken seriously, they can’t be passing laws . . . aimed at controlling . . . behavior outside the District of Columbia, and that’s what this bill does.”
Specifically, he argued, arms merchants around the nation who legally manufacture and distribute weapons and ammunition cannot be held accountable for the violent acts of those who buy or steal their products.
But Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Berkeley), chairman of the House Committee on the District of Columbia, sees the issue differently.
Dellums said he will oppose the Rohrabacher bill when his committee considers it today. Rohrabacher also is a committee member.
“I feel very strongly about the issue of home rule and self-determination,” Dellums said. “The residents of the District of Columbia . . . expressed themselves, and now what we’re doing is thwarting the will of the people. . . . That’s like, in the state of California, for us to somehow overturn the initiative and referendum process.”
If there are legal problems with the assault weapons referendum, Dellums said, they should be addressed by the courts, not the Congress.
Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the non-voting Democrat who represents the district’s interests in Congress, agreed with Dellums.
“If this had occurred in Moscow, Beijing, somewhere in the Middle East or in some banana republic,” Norton said, “Mr. Rohrabacher would have been the first to take to the floor of the House of Representatives” to denounce a plan to reverse a vote of the people.
Underlying the debate over democratic ideals are the twin issues of gun control and assault weapons. The Senate has approved an anti-crime bill that not only requires a five-day waiting period for handgun purchases but bars nine types of semiautomatic assault weapons. The House version includes neither provision, although the House, in separate action earlier this year, approved a bill that provided for a handgun waiting period.
“My general views are that gun control is a fraud that is foisted upon the public by liberals who . . . oppose law and order reform that could make a difference,” Rohrabacher said.
He called passage of the assault weapons liability law in the district “an end run by liberals on the gun issue.”
“They don’t have the strength in other states to have their way” with assault weapon bans, Rohrabacher said, “so they’re going to get one of the most left-leaning electorates in the country to pass a law that superimposes it on the rest of the country.”
The Rohrabacher bill is supported by the National Rifle Assn., which contributed $800 to the congressman in the 1989-90 election cycle.
The District of Columbia, with a population in the last census of 607,000 people, was created by Congress in 1791 to house the national capital. With a brief exception after the Civil War, the district remained under direct congressional control until 1975, the year after Congress gave the district the authority to elect its own mayor and City Council. Nevertheless, Congress retains the power to veto laws passed by the City Council or district voters.
The assault weapons liability referendum was passed largely through the efforts of the district’s black clergy, who have campaigned to curb violence in a city where so far this year a record 435 people have been killed, largely as a result of disputes among drug dealers.
The referendum overturned an action of the City Council, which earlier this year passed--and then rescinded--the assault weapons liability law. The district already bars possession of handguns not registered before 1977.
The gun referendum is not the only district issue that has attracted Rohrabacher’s attention recently.
Even though he has served on the district committee for the last three years, Rohrabacher only recently has become a vocal proponent of such ideas as permitting district officials to levy a commuter tax on residents of suburban Maryland and Virginia who work in Washington.
In exchange for granting that authority, Rohrabacher has suggested that Congress end its annual payment to the district, which this year totals $630 million.
Substituting a commuter tax for the federal payment, Rohrabacher insisted, would free the Administration of Washington Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon from federal interference and at the same time give the district more money than Congress can now afford to spend on its affairs.
But, he said, the idea will probably meet resistance from district officials.
“Any time you get a group that’s on the government (breast), it doesn’t want to get off. And what you’ve got is a dependency mentality,” Rohrabacher said. “They want to have both.”
Dellums said the commuter tax proposal is not among his priorities because he is more concerned now with trying to win statehood for the district--an idea that Rohrabacher strongly opposes.