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Crime Data Underscore Limits Of D.C. Gun Ban's Effectiveness
Marion Barry (D), a council member then as now and a supporter of the bill, put it bluntly at the time: "What we are doing today will not take one gun out of the hands of one criminal."
The ban aroused anger on Capitol Hill. And in a different year, Congress might have scuttled the law, as it was empowered to do. But with a presidential election just a few months away, members were reluctant to debate the sensitive issue of gun control.
The law required all existing handguns, rifles and shotguns in the District to be re-registered, then kept disassembled or with triggers locked. With some exceptions for law enforcement officers and others, anyone who did not already own a handgun registered with D.C. police would be barred from possessing one in the city.
Just three weeks after Mayor Washington signed the measure, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms highlighted the problem with a report on guns found at District crime scenes in the preceding six months. The study, like previous ATF reports, found that most seized firearms (80 percent in this case) were from outside the city.
"Unfortunately," council member Wilson said at the time, "the bill cannot address that problem."
Apparently many of the people who had registered firearms in the city from 1969 to 1974 -- about 50,000 guns -- no longer had those weapons in 1976. During the re-registration period for existing guns under the new law, owners registered about 23,000 firearms, most of them handguns. How many are still in the District is unknown.
There was no more ardent supporter of the ban in 1976 than The Washington Post editorial page, which asserted: "One shortcoming of local laws . . . is that they can't work well when guns are moving freely in immediate adjacent areas." That is why, the editorial said, a federal handgun law was needed.
There would be no federal ban, however. And over the years, Maryland and Virginia enacted only relatively moderate new restrictions on handgun sales and ownership.
In the District, with the ban in place, gun violence continued, generally following the same pattern of ups and downs that many big cities experienced through the decades -- except that in the District, the worst years were far more extreme than nearly everywhere else.
In 1977, the first full year of the ban, the city recorded 192 homicides, a rate of 28 per 100,000 residents. The total rose to 223 in 1981 (a 35 rate), then fell to 147 (a 23.5 rate) in 1985 -- the lowest annual homicide toll in the District since 1966. At the time, the rate for the country as a whole also was trending down.
Which turned out to be the calm before the slaughter.
The advent of the lucrative crack-cocaine market and the unprecedented street violence it unleashed in poor neighborhoods nationwide sent homicide rates soaring in the latter half of the 1980s. Not only did the number of killings surge in the District, as it did in most urban areas, the homicide rates here also far exceeded the rates in crack-ridden cities where handguns had not been banned.
In the peak killing year, 1991, the District recorded 482 homicides, or 81 per 100,000 residents, more than triple the 1985 rate. And more than ever, as the city became known as "the nation's murder capital," the gun was the weapon of choice. In 1985, firearms had been used in 65 percent of D.C. homicides. In 1991, they were used in eight out of 10 slayings.
Almost as sharply as violence in the District increased in the late 1980s, it declined through the 1990s, a drop that researchers attributed partly to the burning out and aging of a generation of crack hoodlums. Again, the shift was not peculiar to the District; it reflected trends across the country. While the D.C. homicide rate decreased from 81 per 100,000 residents in 1991 to 35 in 2005, the national rate fell from 9.8 to 5.6.
Yet the gun culture on the city's mean streets during the crack epidemic has not abated, police statistics show. Even as the homicide toll declined here after 1991, the percentage of killings committed with firearms remained far higher than it was when the ban was passed. Guns were used in 63 percent of the city's 188 slayings in 1976. Last year, out of 169 homicides, 81 percent were shootings.
Meanwhile, periodic ATF reports over the years, including one released in August, have documented that firearms, flowing in from elsewhere in the country, remain readily available on D.C. streets -- exactly what the ban's initial supporters had hoped to prevent.
"I know people are looking for some showing that our homicide rates have gone down to zero and that we no longer have any handguns in the District as a result of this law," said Singer, the city's attorney general. "But you can never judge the success of a law enforcement initiative on whether you've brought it down to zero."
As deadly as some years have been, she said, "what we don't know is what our rates would have been without the ban."