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For Robert Levy, your word is your bond. At least, that’s what he wants to believe when it comes to what he says he’s been told by the National Rifle Association. The NRA is the largest pro-gun lobby in the country, with one of the largest and most effective lobbying machines on Capitol Hill, regardless of which party controls Congress. In a March 22 meeting with NRA officials in the organization’s D.C. office, Levy — senior counsel in a lawsuit that the gun-rights lobby hailed as a victory when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit overturned the District’s 31-year-old gun ban in Parker v. District of Columbia — was told that he “can take it to the bank” that the NRA “will not be doing anything that would prevent Parker from reaching the Supreme Court,” Levy recalls. But now, Levy believes the NRA has done just that. Two weeks ago, when the D.C. voting-rights lobby was prepared to throw confetti, anticipating success in the House after a decades-old, controversial battle for voting representation, their dreams were suddenly dashed. And guns were the reason. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) made a motion to insert language into the D.C. voting-rights bill that would repeal the District’s gun ban. But Democrats refused to vote on the motion, and the bill was stalled. Pushing the legislation while the court case progresses could do more harm than good to gun rights, Levy argues, saying that if legislation repealing the gun ban were passed, it could moot the controversy, and the Supreme Court wouldn’t take up the case, destroying what Levy sees as a golden opportunity for a definitive ruling on the Second Amendment. Immediately after Smith’s proposal, the NRA was suspected by opponents of being behind the move. Smith’s office says that’s not so. “The NRA played no role. That was a decision made by Mr. Smith alone,” says Beth McGinn, spokeswoman for Smith. But it was obvious, said D.C. voting- and gun-rights advocates, that the gun lobby had flexed its muscles with pro-gun Republicans who opposed the D.C. voting bill. Although Levy and those in the gun-rights lobby want the D.C. gun law repealed, they are butting heads on how to go about doing it, with the NRA constantly pushing D.C. gun-ban repeal legislation. “The NRA says one thing and does something else, and we don’t understand,” Levy says, adding that after news broke of Smith’s maneuver, he received a call from NRA officials saying they had nothing to do with it. Levy, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, says that although he is taking the NRA at its word, “it’s only peculiar that this bill is getting pushed.” Steering clear of saying whether the NRA was behind the motion to insert the gun-rights language into the D.C. voting-rights bill at the 11th hour, the NRA was nevertheless quick to support Smith’s move. “Several bills to repeal the gun ban have been introduced with support of the NRA. When you’re promoting legislation, you look for different vehicles to try to get it enacted,” says Stephen Halbrook, who serves as outside counsel for the association. “There are many people who support that D.C. have voting rights and other rights, like the Second Amendment. It could be seen that people who support one would support the other.” THE COURT OR CONGRESS In 2006, the NRA and its subsidiary, the NRA Institute for Legislative Action, spent about $1.6 million lobbying Congress on behalf of gun rights. Firms retained include the Federalist Group (now Ogilvy Government Relations), Scheunemann & Associates, and Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal. About 85 percent of the NRA’s campaign contributions go to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The NRA’s Halbrook detailed the names of some of the NRA’s biggest allies: Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), who has received a total of $20,850 from the NRA; Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), who got $21,200; Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), who has received $24,850; and Smith. A longtime NRA supporter, Smith has received $22,500 from the association since 1990. After the Parker ruling, Ross and Souder introduced legislation to repeal the gun ban in the House, and last week, Hutchison introduced a corresponding bill in the Senate. Those moves were also touted by the NRA’s chief lobbyist, Christopher Cox, on the association’s Web site. The court case challenged the District’s ban, which bars all handguns unless they were registered before 1976, bars pistols already registered from being carried from room to room in a home without a license, and requires all firearms in a home to be unloaded and either disassembled or bound by a trigger lock. D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty is fighting to appeal the ruling, claiming that the gun law helps curb violence in the District. The legislation, backed by the NRA, would also challenge the District’s prohibition on handgun possession. Halbrook says the gun lobby, particularly the NRA, wants to cover all its bases. “It’s what the business lobby did,” says Halbrook, referring to business owners who lobbied successfully to keep loaded guns in their businesses. But Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, the largest national gun-control lobby and NRA’s nemesis, contends that the Republicans’ moves in the House were a sign of the gun lobby’s nervousness. “I think part of it was fear,” Helmke says. “They know the ruling will be reversed, and they are trying to find a way to win this before it gets through the courts.” At the same time, he adds, they know gun-ban legislation couldn’t move on its own. And lawmakers also knew it was controversial enough to complicate the voting-rights issue. The center is already working to strip the gun-ban language from the D.C. voting-rights bill. “At this stage, our goal is to aggressively fight the Parker decision and not have Congress interfere with what is going on in the courts,” Helmke says. Some members of the gun lobby are wary of introducing gun-ban legislation while the case is still in the courts, calling it the right idea at the wrong time. Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, who last week urged Hutchison to pull back her bill, says, “In the past we supported the D.C. gun-repeal measure, but we think a different approach is called for this time. We think the lawsuit probably has a better chance than does the legislation. They ought to give the lawsuit a chance.” AIN’T NO MOUNTAIN HIGH ENOUGH Lawmakers, lobbyists, and Levy say the move to insert gun-ban language in the voting bill probably won’t stick. The language in the D.C. bill could have sent it back to the House Judiciary Committee, where some feared it would have died. But with the push of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the bill, introduced by D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) and Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), is expected to be reintroduced in the House later this month, when Congress returns from recess, as a stand-alone bill. The next mountain the D.C. voting-rights lobby will have to worry about climbing is the Republican side of the Senate. “That’s the real challenge. We’re working to make sure we have enough support to avoid a filibuster,” says Ilir Zherka, executive director of DC Vote, a nonprofit educational and advocacy organization at the forefront of pushing the D.C. voting-rights bill. The group, which is helping to organize an April 16 Emancipation Day march to the Capitol, is also working to get President George W. Bush to rethink his threat to veto the legislation. “It was unfortunate that the Democratic leadership was caught off guard by the parliamentary trick of inserting language to repeal the gun ban,” Zherka says. “But we are regrouping.”
Osita Iroegbu can be contacted at [email protected].

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