Thursday, November 16, 2006

The District is among the major U.S. cities with the highest percentage of people being killed by firearms, despite having one of the strictest gun-control laws in the country.

A recent Metropolitan Police Department report on homicides from 2001 to 2005 states that 901 of 1,126 homicide victims, or about 80 percent, were fatally shot.

“It’s a problem,” Chief Charles H. Ramsey said. “It may be something that’s with us for a while.”

Firearms last year alone were used to commit 157 of the District’s 196 homicides, or about 80 percent. That percentage has remained relatively consistent since 2001, when a five-year low of 78.4 percent of homicides were committed using guns.

FBI crime statistics for 2005 show 10,100 of the country’s 14,860 homicide victims, or 68 percent, were killed by guns.

The District’s percentage of gun homicides is comparable to those in other big cities, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

In 2004, the last year for which comprehensive statistics were available, the 79.3 percent of homicides involving guns in the District was higher than the 61.1 percent in New York. Chicago reported 75.2 percent, and Baltimore had 77.5 percent.

Atlanta had a significantly lower percentage of gun homicides than the District, 73.2 percent, despite less-restrictive gun laws. In Georgia, gun owners are not required to obtain a license or a permit, there is no waiting period to buy a handgun and no background check for second-party sales.

The District did have a lower percentage of gun homicides than New Orleans at 92 percent, Los Angeles at 80.9 percent and Detroit at 80.5 percent.

D.C. law restricts ownership of most guns that were not registered before 1977. Privately owned rifles and shotguns must be kept at home and stored unloaded, disassembled, or bound by a trigger lock or a similar device.

Michael Campbell, a spokesman for the Washington field office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said that part of the problem is the District being surrounded by jurisdictions with less-restrictive regulations.

“You can’t seal the borders,” he said. “There’s always going to be a market for guns.”

Chief Ramsey agreed.

“We have tough gun laws, but most of our guns are coming from Virginia and Maryland,” he said.

D.C. police have recovered nearly 2,400 guns thus far this year, the most during the past five years. Those figures do not include the 337 guns turned in as part of a gun buy-back program in September.

Chief Ramsey thinks most gun owners are responsible, thus is not in favor of eliminating gun ownership.

“Guns and our society go hand in hand,” the chief said. But he favors “very, very stiff penalties” for people who violate the law.

The District’s firearms restrictions, which were passed in 1976, include a maximum one-year penalty or $1,000 fine for first-time offenders and a maximum five-year penalty or $5,000 fine for second offenders.

“To me, that’s not strong enough,” the police chief said.

Carrying a pistol without a license in the District can be either a felony or a misdemeanor charge, depending on whether the offender was carrying the pistol someplace other than in his or her home or business.

Felons convicted of firearms possession can get up to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Felons who use a firearm during the commission of a violent crime can receive a maximum 15-year prison sentence. Possessing unregistered ammunition always is a misdemeanor.

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