Homicides in Washington were up last year, and 60 percent of them were caused by gun shots. The conclusion is inescapable: gun control in the District has failed. So what does D.C. Council Chairman Dave Clarke want to do? Export handgun restrictions to Virginia and Maryland.

Clarke's support for a wider firearms ban is an old idea. Seven years ago the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments recommended uniform gun regulations throughout the region. And proponents of strict handgun controls have spent years lobbying Congress for federal legislation.

But gun control is no answer to the problem of violent crime. Most crimes -- rapes, burglaries, even common muggings -- are carried out without guns. Firearms play a greater role in murders, but some 60 percent of last year's District killings were drug-related. Dealers who are able to buy and sell illicit substances despite extensive federal and state interdiction efforts would obviously be able to purchase weapons even if Virginia and Maryland -- or Congress -- followed Clarke's suggestion. Even in Britain, reports a Cambridge University study, "50 years of very strict controls on pistols has left a vast pool of illegal weapons." Making gun possession criminal simply does not dispossess criminals of their guns.

Of course, taking handguns out of general circulation would probably prevent some killings -- particularly spontaneous killings of acquaintances. But we have no idea how many lives would really be saved. An angry husband with a rifle, knife or baseball bat can be just as deadly as one with a handgun. And some people claim their crime was one of passion simply because premeditated murder carries a stiffer penalty.

Moreover, past firearms bans have not reduced violence. A detailed study by the University of Wisconsin found no correlation between rates of gun ownership and homicides; it concluded "that gun control laws have no individual or collective effect in reducing the rate of violent crime." In fact, the homicide rate in Britain has been increasing far faster than in the United States, despite that country's strict firearms regulations.

Anyway, banning something because a few people -- less than one-half of 1 percent of gun owners, for instance -- misuse it is bad policy. Some 50,000 people die in car accidents every year, but no one seriously suggests eliminating autos. In fact, not only does alcohol abuse contribute to half of all car accidents, but it is involved in more homicides than are handguns. Does that justify a renewed try at Prohibition?

Of course, Clarke argues that "there is no urban beneficial purpose for a handgun," but he's wrong. Firearms are an important self-defense tool, not only in small rural towns but also in crowded urban areas, such as the District. In fact, more blacks, poor people and elderly own firearms for self-defense purposes than do middle-class whites. A gun is often the last line of defense for a law-abiding citizen trapped in a crime-ridden ghetto without effective police protection.

There are innumerable anecdotes to prove the point: black women who have prevented a rape, minority small businessmen who have repelled robbers, young mothers who have captured their would-be muggers, and so on. There is even evidence that gun control discourages Good Samaritans. A Psychology Today survey found that four out of five people who aided their neighbors owned a gun: unlike their unarmed counterparts, reported the magazine, they "are familiar with violence" and "feel competent to handle it."

Of course, some would-be heroes get hurt; some would-be victims, such as Bernard Goetz, exceed legitimate self-defense. But civil libertarian Don Kates has reviewed hundreds of cases and found that armed civilians have a higher success rate in foiling crimes than do policemen. Anyway, the issue is not whether in an ideal world we want people to carry handguns to protect themselves. Instead, the real question is whether a government that is unable to guarantee citizens' lives and property has the right to disarm them.

There is another, more practical problem with gun control. Americans already possess some 140 million firearms. How would a regional or national ban be effective? Defiance by otherwise patriotic citizens would be massive and would require draconian enforcement measures. Yet what does Clarke think of proposals advanced by some gun-control advocates to have, for example, the police randomly force pedestrians through airport-style detectors?

That 227 District residents were killed in 1987, and another 37 in January, is indeed a tragedy. But more extensive gun control, the enduring liberal panacea, is not the answer. -- Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. this will break differently.