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Published: Thursday, 10/7/2004

A campaigning Congress

IN AN election season as contentious as this one, the political gymnastics of partisans on Capitol Hill never cease to amaze and disturb. Congress is predictably eschewing the serious business of the republic, such as reforming flawed intelligence services and balancing budgets, for grandstanding on wedge issues like gay marriage and gun control.

The point of the congressional play for prime time is to expose partisan sympathies on any number of issues guaranteed to stir controversy right before the election. Votes are taken on measures that politicians on both sides of the aisle know full well won't go anywhere. The legislating is just for show.

But a recent House-passed bill ending a 28-year ban on handgun ownership in the District of Columbia - often designated the "murder capital of the U.S." - shows how far some partisan lawmakers will go to ratchet up the political heat in close campaigns.

Coming just after expiration of the assault weapons ban is a bill overturning the capital city's gun laws in utter disregard of the will of district residents, city officials, and Washington police.

Chances are it will die in the Senate but the arrogant demagoguery of its House sponsors was stunning.

They ignored pleas from Mayor Anthony Williams that striking the district's ban on semiautomatic firearms, repealing limits on gun registration, and reversing requirements that guns kept in homes be unloaded or locked up would make gun violence worse. After the bill passed, the mayor said he was outraged federal officials would overturn local laws.

"District residents are being reduced to mere spectators of democracy," he charged. The municipal government has limited self-rule, with Congress overseeing some aspects of its operation.

Police Chief Charles Ramsey predicted the legislation would lead to a "tidal wave" of more deadly weapons in the hands of criminals.

Others questioned the sanity of easing gun restrictions in Washington when it was under orange alert for terrorist attacks.

"A Capitol Hill resident who lived across the street from the Supreme Court could sit on his porch with a fully loaded semiautomatic Uzi carbine," protested Democrats John Conyers of Michigan and Henry Waxman of California in a letter to the President.

None of it mattered to Rep. Mark Souder. The Indiana Republican dismissed D.C. residents, most of whom support the strict gun laws, and went ahead with his plan to force lawmakers to cast a tough gun vote a few weeks before the congressional election.

His intent was transparent and troubling. He played with emotions and dangerous precedent for sport, to no end but political.

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