Last week, a man was arrested at the Greyhound bus station and charged with illegal gun possession.
Standing alone, this incident might have gone unnoticed. But this case is noteworthy because the man is alleged to have brought three semiautomatic handguns into the city on this occasion and 84 handguns into the District of Columbia in the past 18 months. The alleged purpose of this importation is the resale of the handguns on the streets of Washington.
The source of these guns was not some exotic arms bazaar, not some war-torn country on distant shores, but gun stores in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
The sale of handguns is illegal in the District and has been since 1975. Everything that was done in the District with these handguns was illegal; everything that was done with them in Virginia, on the other hand, may well have been legal.
This was not an isolated case. Last month, law enforcement officials said another individual brought more than two-dozen semiautomatic handguns into the District from Virginia. In fact, Virginia gun stores were the largest single source of guns seized during the District's Operation Clean Sweep, according to the Metropolitan Police Department.
Maryland gun stores were not far behind, ranking third (after theft) as a source of guns in the District.
This situation has led me, with the support of the chief of police, to ask the leaders of the Virginia and Maryland general assemblies to consider honoring a Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments resolution that recommended banning certain classes of firearms. The resolution also recommended registration of all legal firearms and strict licensing of and detailed record-keeping by firearms dealers. I have asked the legislative leaders of Maryland and Virginia to consider a ban on the sale of handguns. I have not asked for a ban on the sale of rifles and shotguns.
The COG resolution, adopted in 1981 by a vote of 17 to 5, reflected support from Maryland, Virginia and the District. The District's 1975 law is consistent with the COG resolution and has worked as well as could be expected, given our proximity to such an abundant supply of handguns.
Last year, there were 227 homicides in the District, the highest number in one year since 1975. More than half -- 119 -- of those homicides were committed with handguns. However, the number of handgun homicides was lower last year than in 1981 (when there were 123) and far lower than in the years before the passage of the District's handgun law in 1975.
Moreover, there has been a great reduction in the number of homicides resulting from violent disagreements between acquaintances.
While the number of homicides committed with handguns does not appear to be as bad as it was before passage of the gun law, and while surely the number would be higher without the law, the situation has taken a turn for the worse. With the bulk importation of handguns, we can expect not only a greater number of homicides, but a greater percentage of them being committed with handguns. And we can expect more of these homicides to be associated with other criminal activity, especially drug trafficking.
And it appears that these "imported" handguns are particularly attractive to the young. A new macho symbolism has arisen as teen-age gun-toters roam the streets with visions of Rambo in their heads.
Some would argue that, with an increase in violent crime, the District ought to have mandatory sentences for crimes committed with guns and allow law-abiding citizens to arm themselves for protection.
But we already have mandatory sentences, and the problem with citizens' arming themselves for protection is that it simply does not work. In not one of the last 15 years, both before and after the passage of the gun law, has the number of justifiable homicides by citizens using handguns for protection exceeded four, while the number of criminal handgun homicides has ranged from a low of 78 in 1979 to 155 in 1974.
The contrast is too clear to ignore. Handguns held for protection are stolen or used in family disputes far, far more often than they are ever used for legitimate protection.
Two years ago, I received many letters from public officials in Maryland and Virginia asking the District to raise its drinking age from 18 to 21. The problem of alcohol-related fatal accidents involving young people was a real one for our neighbors, although we were not experiencing much of a problem in the District. I replied to each of these letters not by saying no, but by offering to sit down and discuss an approach to dangerous substances being sold by one jurisdiction to the youth of the others -- alcohol and handguns.
There was little interest in my proposal. Instead, a body in which Virginia and Maryland are represented but the District is not -- Congress -- ultimately forced the change on us. It remains true, however, that handguns are at least as dangerous as beer and wine.
If the dangers of alcohol can be blamed for what was happening in Virginia and Maryland, the dangers of handguns can be blamed for what is happening here. If there was any merit in one jurisdiction's calling upon another for help in 1985, there is as much or more justification for the call I am making now.
It would be to the benefit of all if this call were heeded. If history is any guide, the problems of the city will someday be the problems of the suburban communities as well. -- Dave Clarke is chairman of the D.C. Council. BY WILEY