Let’s say you were among the people who took Donald Trump at his word throughout the campaign. While the rest of us dismissed his extreme and divisive rhetoric as little more than empty promises, you were convinced that he would build that wall; he would ban Muslim visitors and immigrants from the U.S.; he would act to revoke the Affordable Care Act; and he would allow work to resume on pipelines that imperil natural resources in sensitive tribal lands.
Now proven largely correct, I’m willing to bet there’s one consequence to Donald Trump’s presidency that didn’t occur to you: For the first time in 40 years, due to the Republican Congress emboldened by a new president, guns might return to the streets of our nation’s capital en masse, no longer subject to the controls that have kept gun violence in check for decades.
Prior to these laws, gun violence in the U.S. capital was out of control. In 1974, more than half of all homicides were committed with handguns. Two years later, in 1976, the District of Columbia voted to ban city residents from acquiring handguns. In the years that followed, D.C. continued to impose some of the toughest gun control laws in the country.
Opposed robustly by Congress, which, despite home rule, controls the District’s budget and governs many of the city’s operational functions, the laws managed to survive all but a single challenge concerning an individual’s right to own a handgun, which D.C. fought all the way to the Supreme Court, eventually losing in 2008.
Even so, the District of Columbia has laws enforcing—among other things—substantial waiting periods for gun purchases and effective safety features on all guns. It also prohibits ownership of assault weapons. And while gun violence does still plague the city—in 2015, 121 of D.C.’s 162 murders were committed with a firearm—the solution would seem to be harsher restrictions on gun ownership in adjacent states, not easier access to weapons in D.C.
Now Congress has decided to reassert its authority over the District, threatening to force D.C. to repeal its gun control laws. While the legislation hasn’t stopped gun violence in the city, it has kept it from raging as it did in the past.
Allowing more weapons onto the streets will not solve gun crime. Yet that’s the objective of members of the House and Senate who would like exercise the authority over the District they have long held, but have rarely felt able to assert. This bid for dominance of the District has begun in the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, a congressional committee that determines how D.C. spends its budget—even funds that are raised through local taxes.
Control over federal funds and local tax revenue allows the committee to determine which D.C. laws receive funds for enforcement and which do not. The committee can also recommend that Congress withhold funding for services of all kinds to force the District to yield in federal disputes.
Monitoring the capital is supposed to be of relatively little concern to the committee. Its primary objective is to oversee the administration for potential conflicts of interest. Given Trump’s business entanglements, and his family’s involvement in the administration, one might expect the oversight committee to have plenty of priorities ahead of allowing everyone in D.C. easy access to lethal force.
But the committee’s chair, Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz, has chosen to focus instead on wresting power from D.C.’s democratically elected council, introducing a bill to repeal the District’s popular “Death with Dignity” law.
Meanwhile in the Senate, Florida Republican Marco Rubio, has introduced a bill to replace D.C.’s strict and sensible laws with federal laws that are inadequate for public safety. These laws would allow petty gangsters to carry automatic weapons, for miscreants with a vendetta to carry concealed weapons. You name the scenario, there’s a permissive gun policy for that.
Congress’s motivations seem plain. It is driven, not by the pressure of lobbying groups like the National Rifle Association , but by something arguably more threatening to our national character: an ideology that above all seeks to safeguard the right to bear arms and deny each of us the right to make the most intimate decisions for ourselves.
Given free rein by a president who would rather have Congress pursue oversight of the District of Columbia than of himself and his staff, Republican lawmakers have a chance to turn D.C. into their idealized fiefdom, where everyone is armed, and no one has the right to make the most basic decisions pertaining to life and health.
A newly vigilant public is challenging such intrusions. Angry Utah constituents protested at Chaffetz’s town hall meeting last week, chanting “do your job,” when he told them that Trump is exempt from conflict of interest laws. Meanwhile the local pressure group D.C. Vote, which advocates voting rights for District residents, organized a rally on February 13 to tell the committee to “keep [its] hands off D.C.”
Should D.C.’s ideologically driven congressional overseers prevail, the consequences for D.C. residents and visitors’ safety could be tragic. Congress will have allowed Trump to dodge scrutiny in return for letting it have its way with a capital that just wants peace.
Diana Shaw Clark lived in London for 17 years where she organized Americans in support of progressive candidates for office in the U.S. She has recently moved to Washington, D.C. to work to challenge the policies of President Donald Trump.