D.C. Council Chairman David A. Clarke, citing a recent increase in homicides in the District, urged the Maryland and Virginia general assemblies yesterday to ban the sale of handguns.
"There is no urban beneficial purpose for a handgun," said Clarke, who also is president of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, a regional group that has pressed for handgun controls. "We did not conclude that the prominent use of shotguns and rifles was criminal. But we did find criminal use of handguns."
Leaders of the Maryland and Virginia general assemblies could not be reached for comment. In the past, the two state legislatures have balked at handgun control measures. Handgun sales have been prohibited in the District since 1976.
Last year, 228 homicides were reported in the city, the highest total since 1975. Police said more than 60 percent of the homicides were committed with guns and nearly 60 percent were drug-related.
Clarke said that 90 percent of the guns used as murder weapons were handguns.
In addition, Clarke said, he believes that many of the handguns used in homicides were purchased in Maryland and Virginia.
"Importantly, of those guns which were confiscated and the sources of which were traced, the largest source by far has been Virginia and Maryland gun stores," Clarke said in a New Year's Day letter to Maryland and Virginia legislative leaders. "Indeed, in one recent instance, our police arrested and charged an individual with using false identification to cross our border and import 30 guns for resale."
In the letter, Clarke tied the handgun issue to the D.C. Council's approval of a 1986 measure that raised the city's drinking age to 21. The minimum age previously had been 18 for beer and wine.
Maryland and Virginia officials had urged the D.C. Council to adopt the higher age requirement, contending that suburban youths were drawn to the District to drink and that some of them then drove home drunk. Officials said the move would help reduce traffic deaths.
"Given this experience, it should not be too hard to appreciate our concern with our young people purchasing another substance at least as deadly as beer and wine in other jurisdictions and then coming home to kill each other with it, and that substance is handguns," Clarke said in the letter.
"Now that the drinking age is settled and youth homicides are on the rise, I think it's time to focus again on the handgun issue," Clarke added in a telephone interview.
"I want them to know what their policies are doing to my people," Clarke said. "I'm going to take every opportunity to make it known to them and this is an opportunity."
In the letter, Clarke contended that the council had raised the drinking age even though the District "was not having a particularly difficult time with its citizens between the ages of 18 and 21 drinking and then becoming involved in vehicular homicide." District officials, Clarke added, had "received much correspondence from our neighbors in Maryland and Virginia regarding a so-called blood-border."
Last August, Virginia Del. Clifton A. Woodrum (D-Roanoke), chairman of a subcommittee of the Virginia State Crime Commission that had studied gun control proposals, said, "I don't anticipate any major initiatives" in the General Assembly's 1988 session. His statement followed an emotional appeal for tougher gun laws from Sarah Brady, whose husband, presidential press secretary James S. Brady, was shot in the head during a 1981 assassination attempt against President Reagan.
In a 1985 decision, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that makers and sellers of small handguns, often called "Saturday night specials," can be held liable for injuries caused by the guns. The court ruling has curtailed handgun manufacturing and sales, officials said. During last year's legislative session, the House of Delegates considered the issue, but did not take action to change the law.
In Maryland, a computerized search for criminal records is conducted on those seeking to buy handguns. The search takes at least a week, said State Police Sgt. Harry Sears.
In Virginia, handgun buyers need only fill out a registration form supplied by a gun dealer, said State Police Sgt. Grayson Ward. Some Virginia localities have additional requirements, officials said.
In his letter, Clarke said that COG in 1981 had recommended a uniform regulation based on the District's gun control law.
The council concluded that "genuine firearms control must be regional, if not national in scope," he said.