WASHINGTON (AP) — It was one week after the fatal shootings at a Parkland, Florida, high school, and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio was looking to show solidarity with an angry crowd of parents and students in his home state. He told them — and a national television audience — that 18-year-olds should not be able to buy a rifle and said, “I will support a law that takes that right away.”
About 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) north, District of Columbia officials could only shake their heads in disbelief. The city already had a law barring 18-year-olds from buying rifles, yet Rubio was the main senator pushing legislation to end that ban, as well as D.C.’s prohibition of assault weapons.
“Rubio’s gun bill should be a public embarrassment as well as a personal embarrassment to him,” said Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington’s nonvoting delegate in Congress.
Gun control has long been a sore point in relations between officials in this heavily Democratic city, home to some of the nation’s toughest gun control laws, and Republicans, who as the congressional majority have power over D.C.’s laws. The strong feelings have intensified with the nation at a crossroads moment in the gun control debate after the Feb. 14 shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and a subsequent “March for Our Lives” gun-control rally in Washington.
Rubio, in particular, is seen as the villain. City officials accuse him of playing cynical political games with the lives of Washington residents to curry favor with the National Rifle Association.
Following the town hall, Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser challenged Rubio to withdraw his bill. Rubio sent her a letter saying that he and Bowser “share a common goal” and that his bill seeks only to bring Washington “in line with federal law.” If federal law changes —which Rubio said is his goal — then Washington’s laws would change as well.
Bowser, a Democrat, posted the letter on Twitter with her handwritten notes and objections written in the margins. Those notes include Bowser calling Rubio’s stance “the epitome of hypocrisy.”
“He’s just using it to boost his NRA score,” Bowser said in an interview with The Associated Press. “What we think Marco Rubio should be focused on is his job.”
Asked for comment by The Associated Press, Rubio staffers responded by providing the Rubio letter that Bowser had posted.
Rubio introduced the bill, known as the Second Amendment Enforcement Act, in 2015 and again in 2017. According to the NRA website, Rubio has an A-plus rating. Among its list of Rubio accomplishments is that he “sponsored legislation that would repeal Washington, D.C.’s draconian gun control laws and restore the right of self-defense to law-abiding individuals in our nation’s capital.”
Norton said she’s been fighting off similar bills in Congress for years. Another one, sponsored by Virginia Republican Tom Garrett, exists in the House. Neither of them has much chance of passing because the Republican majorities in Congress wouldn’t hold together on such a divisive issue, she said.
“The worst part is why he did it. Why would a senator from Florida take on this issue?” Norton asked. “He’s coming back every year for his NRA payoff.”
According to public records, Rubio received just under $10,000 directly from the NRA during the 2016 election. However the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which combines direct contributions from the NRA with contributions from like-minded affiliates, super PACs and money spent on campaign ads on behalf of the candidate, estimates that Rubio has received more than $3.3 million over the course of his career, making him the 6th-highest recipient in Congress.
The Washington government has bristled for years under what officials call the heavy-handed and arrogant oversight of Congress, which has the right to alter or spike all Washington laws.
Washington has long fought to defend its strict gun control. A 2008 Supreme Court ruling declared Washington’s blanket ban on handgun ownership unconstitutional. Washington restrictions such as preventing gun owners from registering more than one gun per month and requiring re-registration every three years have also been struck down by the courts.
The issues of Washington’s autonomy and its gun control laws are deeply intertwined. The closest Washington has come in recent years to having a vote in Congress unraveled over gun control.
Republicans have opposed statehood for the District of Columbia, which would boost Democratic power in Congress. Despite the Republican Party’s general opposition to federal interference in state issues, the official GOP platform stance on D.C. statehood is that it can only be achieved via constitutional amendment. The platform states that “the nation’s capital city is a special responsibility of the federal government because it belongs both to its residents and to all Americans.”
A 2009 compromise proposed creating a new congressional district in heavily Republican Utah. In exchange, Washington’s House delegate seat would be upgraded to full voting status.
However, as the D.C. Voting Rights Act worked its way through Congress, Republican Nevada Sen. John Ensign attached a rider that would have required Washington to abolish most of its gun-ownership restrictions. The city government concluded it was too high a price to pay and the bill was shelved.