The new smoking

Gambling is like smoking: risky, addictive, and considered by some to be super-cool. The city government recently banned smoking, so in some places gambling has stepped in to fill the void.

Capitol Hill’s Tune Inn has introduced Keno. It’s a D.C. lottery game that you play by buying a card, making a bet, and waiting for a TV screen to announce the winning numbers, which it does every four minutes.

A place with Keno machines is as close as you can get in the District to a casino. We almost had real-deal slot machines, but city activist Dorothy Brizill and husband Gary Imhoff, executive director and vice president of D.C. Watch, respectively, have prevented that from happening so far.

“Our involvement came about in 2004 because they were breaking D.C. election laws,” says Imhoff of the slots proponents —  shady offshore entrepreneurs with an unmarked office in a Capitol Hill alley — who still want a citywide referendum on gambling terminals in Anacostia. “We haven’t done what we’ve done so far because we’re pro- or anti-gambling,” Imhoff says.

Brizill is the lead plaintiff in a suit against D.C.’s Board of Elections and Ethics, in which she argues that the District can’t put a slots referendum on a ballot because doing so would violate the federal Johnson Act. The slots folks want D.C. voters to decide whether they want gambling terminals in Anacostia or not. The D.C. Court of Appeals recently agreed with Brizill that the Johnson Act prevents the use of gambling devices in the District and other colonially held territories. The District, of course, does not have the same ability of a state to opt out of provisions in the law.

While there is little support for the slots initiative here (you can’t trust the slots people’s petition, which consists of names for which signature-gatherers earned two bucks apiece), Brizill and Imhoff caught a little heat at D.C. Watch for their tactic in preventing the initiative. One person who wrote to the online magazine said that using the District’s sub-democratic status to prevent gambling is a “contemptible” tactic.

But are there any real repercussions for this tactic? HillScape thinks maybe. Gambling opponents could have waged a “vote no” campaign and D.C. residents could have been trusted to defeat the initiative by referendum. Instead, we’re paying attention to the Johnson Act — another prohibitive measure. It could be that Keno is as banned as smoking.

The Johnson Act defines a “gambling device” as “any machine or mechanical device (including, but not limited to, roulette wheels and similar devices) designed and manufactured primarily for use in connection with gambling … by the operation of which a person may become entitled to receive, as the result of the application of an element of chance, any money or property.”

Gambling-initiative lawyers themselves have argued that the Johnson Act threatens the legality of the D.C. Lottery. Lottery Associate General Counsel Ridgely Bennett issued this statement to HillScape: “We believe that all D.C. lottery games are being offered in a lawful manner.”

Hope so, because otherwise there are going to be a few angry smokers …


The old smoking


Here’s the District, a jurisdiction minding its own business, just trying to find new things to forbid its citizens to do, and then on March 9 along comes this libertarian think tank — the Cato Institute — and this federal appeals court, upending our longstanding prohibition on handguns in homes. Taxation without representation! Free D.C.!

“Almost unprecedented overreaching,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), lambasting the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in an official statement. “We are not intimidated by this court’s virtual partnership with the [National Rifle Association (NRA)]. We have successfully fought four attempts by Congress to overturn the District’s gun safety laws.”
“I am personally deeply disappointed and frankly outraged by this decision,” said Mayor Adrian Fenty. “It flies in the face of laws that have helped decrease gun violence in the District of Columbia.”

Fair enough. But on the other hand, for your outrage’s worth, this latest affront to the District’s strict gun ban is a bit of a disappointment. The court opinion (which is hardly the last word in the matter) is the result of a lawsuit by actual District residents (with Cato’s help, of course). That’s not nearly as upsetting as, say, a senator introducing ban-repealing legislation on behalf of his patrons in the NRA, like Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) did in 2003. Or like when the House of Representatives attempted to repeal our firearm laws in 2004. Those are some seriously rude ways to let me buy a Glock. This lawsuit is less so.

As for the effect of the gun law on crime, who knows?

“We live in a society where having a handgun at home can be the difference between life and death,” said Tom Palmer (one of the gun litigants) to The Washington Post.

But imagine if Capitol Hill’s burglary bandit broke into your house. In past instances where he’s been confronted by people at home, he says, “I’m from the Salvation Army” and leaves.

A gun at home would be the difference between life and death, all right. Do you really want to kill this guy?

Hill resident Gary Peterson was able to fend off a dangerous armed intruder with nothing more than a frying pan.


The new soccer stadium


The District is receiving several parcels of land through congressional legislation, and with some of these the District hopes to do what it does best — hand ’em to developers.

Such is the case with Poplar Point on the east bank of the Anacostia River, currently an undeveloped federal park area. City officials have indicated their eagerness to fork this parcel over to Victor MacFarlane, owner of the D.C. United soccer team.

We’ve been through this a few times in the last decade. First, the Convention Center, which cost $850 million and isn’t paying off by any account. Then the baseball stadium, which is costing over $600 million and has spurred lots of redevelopment in what used to be a hideous industrial park but whose putative benefits to current taxpayers are highly questionable, though baseball fat cats are sure to score.

And now a soccer team — if a majority of D.C. residents didn’t want baseball (as was the case according to polls), who thinks a majority wants soccer? Word is the stadium won’t be taxpayer-funded.

D.C. Council member Marion Barry, whose ward includes Poplar Point, has indicated his enthusiasm for the deal, saying he’d be willing to push for tax breaks for the stadium. But there may be some unrest in the neighborhood.

“This isn’t just a development issue,” says Brian Van Wye, riverkeeper for the Earth Conservation Corps, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group that recruits and educates area youth on the reclamation of the Anacostia. “This is a social justice issue. This is a civil rights issue.”

Wye reports that “hundreds” of residents attended a Jan. 20 forum to voice disapproval of the potential giveaway — part of an emerging “groundswell” of opposition. As Wye points out, imagine if the government tried to give away part of Rock Creek Park for commercial development. It would never, ever happen.

Rock Creek, of course, is a bit nicer than the east bank of the Anacostia. The river is so full of human excrement and other pollutants that experts think vigorous economic development on its shores might actually make things better for the water quality. But anyway: Another stadium giveaway demands skepticism.