Since 1976, D.C. residents have lived under the nation’s most restrictive gun laws: Police enforce a citywide handgun ban, and local statutes require residents to keep long guns disassembled, unloaded and locked up. The law even forbids target shooting. Those who envision the United States as a violent cowboy nation might take comfort in knowing that this regime offers more restrictions than the laws anywhere else in the United States, in Canada, or indeed, in any major European Union nation.
Even in a nation where many see gun ownership as a birthright, D.C.’s gun-control regime, in effect since 1976, aroused surprisingly little controversy until recently. Had the law worked, the relative lack of controversy wouldn’t surprise anyone. But, instead, the law hasn’t done anything to reduce violence. Last year, the District, never far out of the running, reclaimed the title of the U.S. murder capital among the 30 most populous cities.
Now, a full-scale effort to challenge the law has gotten underway. Gene Healy and Robert Levy, both employees of the libertarian Cato Institute but acting for themselves, have filed a lawsuit challenging the D.C. law on Second Amendment grounds, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, Utah Republican, has introduced legislation to overturn it. “It is time to restore the rights of law-abiding citizens to protect themselves and to defend their families against murderous predators,” says Mr. Hatch. The two Cato staffers think much the same way. “Why should we say to people who work hard and live by the rules that they can’t protect themselves?” asks Mr. Healy.
And D.C. residents need more protection: Crime has risen significantly since the gun ban went into effect. 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. In fact, the murder rate after 1976 has never fallen back to what it was in 1976. Robberies and overall violent crime changed just as dramatically. Robberies fell from 1,514 to 1,003 per 100,000 and then rose by over 63 percent, up to 1,635. These drops and subsequent increases were much larger than any changes in neighboring Maryland and Virginia. For example, the District’s murder rate fell 3.5 to 3 times more than in the neighboring states and rose back 3.8 times more.
The District does face some severe crime problems unrelated to the gun ban. Although it has improved in recent years, the District’s police force still fights a legacy of corruption and incompetence: Under city hiring rules police can’t use even basic intelligence tests to screen applicants. Department computer systems don’t work and officers sometimes have trouble finding functional patrol cars. During the early 1990s, as Congress demanded that the city improve police staffing, the city failed to conduct even basic background checks. As a result, at least 50 officers still on the force and subject to civil service protections have criminal records so severe that they cannot work the streets or testify in court. The city’s poor neighborhoods, likewise, rank among the worst in the country, and community-police cooperation suffers just about everywhere.
But even cities with far better police agencies have seen crime soar in the wake of handgun bans. Chicago, which has banned all handguns since 1982, has police computer systems that are the envy of the nation, a bevy of shiny new police facilities and a productive working relationship with community groups. Indeed, the city has achieved impressive reductions in property crime in recent years. 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 neighboringIllinoiscounties: 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. While robbery data isn’t available for the years immediately after the ban, since 1985 (the first year for which the FBI has data) robbery rates soared.
In other words, crime rates actually improved prior to these bans and then deteriorated after they took effect. Even though guns will leak into the District and Chicago from neighboring areas, at least some minor benefit still should have been observed if gun bans reduce crime. Instead, the opposite was the case. The gun bans appear to have disarmed only law-abiding citizens while leaving criminals free to prey on the populace.
Eli Lehrer is the associate editor of The American Enterprise. John R. Lott, Jr. is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.