Crime Data Underscore Limits Of D.C. Gun Ban's Effectiveness

By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Three decades ago, at the dawn of municipal self-government in the District, the city's first elected mayor and council enacted one of the country's toughest gun-control measures, a ban on handgun ownership that opponents have long said violates the Second Amendment.

All these years later, with the constitutionality of the ban now probably headed for a U.S. Supreme Court review, a much-debated practical question remains unsettled: Has a law aimed at reducing the number of handguns in the District made city streets safer?

Although studies through the decades have reached conflicting conclusions, this much is clear: The ban, passed with strong public support in 1976, has not accomplished everything that the mayor and council of that era wanted it to.

Over the years, gun violence has continued to plague the city, reaching staggering levels at times.

In making by far their boldest public policy decision, the District's first elected officials wanted other jurisdictions, especially neighboring states, to follow the lead of the nation's capital by enacting similar gun restrictions, cutting the flow of firearms into the city from surrounding areas.

"We were trying to send out a message," recalled Sterling Tucker (D), the council chairman at the time.

Nadine Winters (D), also a council member then, said, "My expectation was that this being Washington, it would kind of spread to other places, because these guns, there were so many of them coming from Virginia and Maryland."

It didn't happen. Guns kept coming. And bodies kept falling.

Opponents of the ban, who won a March ruling in which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit declared the law unconstitutional, contend in a legal filing that the District's "31-year experiment with gun prohibition" has been a "complete failure." Meanwhile, D.C. officials, who have asked the Supreme Court to reverse the March decision, say the ban is a legally permissible public-safety measure that has saved lives.

Which side is correct depends on whose social science research is accurate. Although the city points to research indicating that street violence would have been worse without the law and that the ban is responsible for a sharp drop in suicides and domestic killings, opponents of the ban cite studies to the contrary.

"It's a pretty common-sense idea that the more guns there are around, the more gun violence you'll have," D.C. Attorney General Linda Singer said.

The court could announce as soon as today whether it will hear the appeal. If the justices take up the case, as most legal experts expect, it could result in a landmark ruling next year on whether the Second Amendment protects a person's right to own a gun.

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