In asking the Supreme Court to let the District of Columbia ban handguns, the city has a simple argument: Whatever one thinks of the Second Amendment, banning handguns is a “reasonable regulation” to protect public safety. The problem for the city is that anyone who can look up the crime numbers will see that D.C.’s violent crime rate went up, not down, after the ban.
D.C. notes that criminals like to use handguns to commit crimes. We all want to disarm criminals, but, as long as one recognizes the possibility of self defense, at best the city’s claim can only be part of the story. As with all gun-control laws, the question is ultimately whether it is the law-abiding citizens or criminals who are most likely to obey the law. If law-abiding citizens are the ones who turn in their guns and not the criminals, crime rates can go up, not down.
The city’s brief focuses only on murder rates in discussing crime in D.C. Yet, in the five years before Washington’s ban in 1976, the murder rate fell from 37 to 27 per 100,000. In the five years after it went into effect, the murder rate rose back up to 35. But there is one fact that seems particularly hard to ignore. D.C.’s murder rate fluctuated after 1976 but has only once fallen below what it was in 1976 (that happened years later, in 1985). Does D.C. really want to argue that the gun ban reduced the murder rate?
Similarly for violent crime, from 1977 to 2003, there were only two years when D.C.’s violent crime rate fell below the rate in 1976. These drops and subsequent increases were much larger than any changes in neighboring Maryland and Virginia. For example, D.C.’s murder rate fell 3.5 to 3 times more than in the neighboring states during the five years before the ban and rose back 3.8 times more in the five years after it. D.C.’s murder rate also rose relative to that in other similarly sized cities.
Surely D.C. has had many problems that contribute to crime, but even cities with far better police departments have seen crime soar in the wake of handgun bans. Chicago has banned all handguns since 1982. Indeed, D.C. points to Chicago’s ban to support its own ban. But the gun ban didn’t work at all when it came to reducing violence. Chicago’s murder rate fell from 27 to 22 per 100,000 in the five years before the law and then rose slightly to 23. The change is even more dramatic when compared to five neighboring Illinois counties: Chicago’s murder rate fell from being 8.1 times greater than its neighbors in 1977 to 5.5 times in 1982, and then went way up to 12 times greater in 1987.
Taking a page from recent Supreme Court cases, D.C. points to gun bans in other countries as evidence that others think that gun bans are desirable. But the experience in other countries, even island nations that have gone so far as banning guns and where borders are easy to monitor, should give D.C. and its supporters some pause. Not only didn’t violent crime and homicide decline as promised, but they actually increased.
D.C.’s brief specifically points to Great Britain’s handgun ban in January 1997. But the number of deaths and injuries from gun crime in England and Wales increased 340 percent in the seven years from 1998 to 2005. The rates of serious violent crime, armed robberies, rapes and homicide have also soared.
The Republic of Ireland banned and confiscated all handguns and all center fire rifles in 1972, but murder rates rose fivefold by 1974 and in the 20 years after the ban has averaged 114 percent higher than the pre-ban rate (never falling below at least 31 percent higher).
Jamaica banned all guns in 1974, but murder rates almost doubled from 11.5 per 100,000 in 1973 to 19.5 in 1977, and soared further to 41.7 in 1980.
Evidence is also available for other countries. For example, it is hard to think of a much more draconian police state than the former Soviet Union. Yet despite a ban on guns that dated back to the Communist revolution, its murder rates were high. During the entire decade from 1976 to 1985 the Soviet Union’s homicide rate was between 21 and 41 percent higher than that of the United States. By 1989, two years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, it had risen to 48 percent above the U.S. rate.
Even if D.C.’s politicians want to keep arguing for a ban based on public safety, hard facts must eventually matter. If they can’t see that gun-control laws have failed to deliver as promised, may be the Supreme Court can point it out for them.
John R. Lott Jr., author of “More Guns, Less Crime” and “Freedomnomics,” is a senior research scientist at the University of Maryland.