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.
"One of the difficult things is, you can't measure what didn't happen," Singer said. "You can't measure how many guns didn't come into the District because we have this law. You can't measure all the crimes that we know were prevented from happening."
But you can measure the violence that did occur, using the bellwether offense of homicide to chart the ebb and flow of crime in the District since the ban was enacted. And the violence here over those years was worse than in most other big cities, many of them in states with far less restrictive gun laws.
When they imposed the ban in 1976, then-Mayor Walter E. Washington (D) and the council were reacting to public concern about crime, which began rising across the country in the mid-1960s.
Reflecting a nationwide spike, the District recorded about 12,000 robberies in 1969, a twelvefold increase from 1960. The city's 1969 homicide rate (287 slayings, or about 36 per 100,000 residents) was nearly triple the rate at the start of the decade.
Congress reacted to the assassinations of the 1960s and the overall crime increase by passing the federal Gun Control Act of 1968, barring firearms ownership for a broad class of people, including convicted felons. A year later, the federally appointed D.C. Council required local gun owners to register their firearms. By 1974, police said at the time, about 50,000 guns were registered in the city.
Although crime in the District and nationwide slowly tapered off in the 1970s, the public perception remained that "D.C." stood for "Dodge City," as one headline put it. Calling gun registration "a farce," then-Police Chief Jerry V. Wilson said officers were seizing about 300 illegal firearms a month, many from Maryland and Virginia.
"We don't want to panic people," said a D.C. police captain at the time, "but they should beware that if they get into an altercation with a stranger, there's a distinct possibility he may be carrying a gun."
In this climate, D.C. voters elected a mayor and 13 council members in 1974 under newly granted home rule. Unlike those in Congress who had been overseeing the city government, these new leaders were highly attuned to D.C. residents, having come mostly from the ranks of local civil rights and social welfare activists.
"We were uniquely in touch with the folks," Winters recalled.
And it was clear that the folks wanted gun control. A Georgetown University poll in 1975, for example, found that three out of four D.C. residents favored a handgun ban. "People were afraid," Winters said. "We knew we had to stand up and do something."
Still, few if any council members thought that the statute would significantly stem the flow of guns into the city, officials recalled. Their main hope was that the ban would start a trend, eventually leading to a federal handgun ban.
"The bill should not be looked at as a panacea to solve all gun-related crime problems that we have in the city," warned then-council member John A. Wilson (D), after the council passed the measure, 12 to 1, and the mayor signed it into law in July 1976. "But maybe it will save some senseless accident at somebody's home," Wilson said.
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."