Give Us Back Our Gun Law

A box filled with guns that were brought to District police in September as part of a buyback program.
A box filled with guns that were brought to District police in September as part of a buyback program. (By Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)
By Cathy Lanier and Vincent Schiraldi
Thursday, March 15, 2007

As lawyers in guarded courtrooms debate whether it is a good idea to preserve tough gun control in the District of Columbia, in the real world of the city's juvenile justice system, the jury is in. There is no single solution to the problems of youth crime, but strong gun control laws such as the one struck down last week by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit clearly make a difference.

The public needs to understand that young people get their hands on guns differently than adults do -- mainly by borrowing them from family members and friends or by buying them on the black market, according to a Justice Department study.

Back in 1995, the number of juveniles arrested for homicides in the District peaked at an alarming 14. Juvenile homicides peaked nationally about that time; in fact, between 1984 and 1994, homicides committed by juveniles increased threefold nationally. During that period, juvenile homicides involving handguns increased fourfold, while juvenile homicides in which handguns were not a factor remained unchanged.

Confronted with data such as these confirming the link between access to handguns and youth homicides, federal, state and local governments took action. In 1995, Congress made it a federal offense for juveniles to possess handguns. Jurisdictions around the country passed gun control ordinances and stepped up law enforcement efforts; Boston's Operation Night Light, for instance, made a priority of keeping guns out of the hands of children.

In 1995 the District already had one of the nation's toughest gun control laws, forbidding handgun possession in the home. This is the provision the appeals court recently overturned. But handguns still flowed easily into the District from neighboring states, fueling black-market sales and hampering the effectiveness of the city's in-home ban.

In 1995 and 1997 laws enacted in, respectively, Virginia and Maryland prohibited citizens from purchasing more than one gun per month, dramatically reducing illegal gun sales as supply was choked off. The number of handguns coming into the District from those states fell immediately after the laws were passed. Before Virginia passed its law, it was the No. 1 supplier of guns seized in crimes in the District. Once Virginia's law took effect, Maryland became the largest source of guns seized in D.C. crimes. In the year after Maryland passed its one-gun-a-month law, the number of Maryland guns seized in the District dropped from 20 to zero.

These bans on multiple gun sales in neighboring states choked off black-market sales, while the D.C. ban on guns in the home reduced the ability of youths to borrow guns from family and friends. The result? The number of juveniles charged with homicide in the District fell 86 percent from 1995 to 2006. In 1995, 14 of the 227 people charged with a homicide in the District, or 6 percent, were juveniles. Last year, only two out of 106 people (fewer than 2 percent) charged with homicides in the District were juveniles. Because easy access to cheap handguns disproportionately jeopardizes D.C. youths, laws that restrict such access disproportionately benefit youths.

No single factor can account for this substantial decline in homicides by D.C. juveniles. But to deny the impact of serious gun control laws and put guns back into children's homes would be misguided and dangerous. We hope the courts give us back an important tool to protect the safety of our youths and the residents of the District of Columbia.

Cathy Lanier is acting chief of the District's Metropolitan Police Department. Vincent Schiraldi is director of the District's Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services.

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