Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The acting chief of the Metropolitan Police Department told the D.C. Council yesterday that legalizing guns in the District would lead to an increase in homicides since most killings in the city occur after confrontations or petty disputes.

“My greatest concern is that even a legally registered firearm can get into the wrong hands, and lead to a heartbreaking outcome,” Chief Cathy L. Lanier said during a hearing exploring ways to reduce gun violence.

Chief Lanier said that 137 of the District’s homicide victims were killed with a gun last year, and that there were seven times more serious gun assaults.

Yesterday’s hearing nominally focused on legislation introduced last month by council member Marion Barry that would suspend the District’s 30-year ban on handguns, providing gun owners a 90-day period to register weapons they would then be allowed to legally own. The legislation would also dramatically increase the penalties for owning illegal guns or ammunition.

But most of the approximately 20 witnesses who testified during the four-hour hearing spoke to the recent federal appeals court decision to overturn the gun ban. The ruling, handed down March 9, stated that the right to bear arms as guaranteed in the Second Amendment to the Constitution applies to individuals and not only to militias. City officials plan to appeal the decision.

Both sides of the gun debate were represented during yesterday’s hearing, which featured policy experts, residents and relatives of gun-violence victims. A number of gun-rights advocates testified that legalizing guns would benefit residents.

Mike Stollenwerk of Open said criminals might think twice about robbing residents if they thought a homeowner might have a gun.

“The council should consider giving self-defense a chance here in the District,” he said. “Give your residents the ability to protect themselves.”

Council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat and chairman of the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary, said the court decision will increase the number of guns in the District.

“I think it’s public endangerment,” he said.

Several confrontations occurred during exchanges between council members and witnesses over whether allowing residents to own guns would make them safer. Council member Mary Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, called the proposal to allow guns for self-protection a “dangerous, nutty experiment” that would only increase violence.

Valencia Muhammad, a victims’ rights advocate who lost two children to gun violence, said that increasing gun penalties could lead to police harassment and that she favored the repeal of the gun ban.

“That’s our constitutional right and no one should take that away from us,” she said.

The gun ban left the District with some of the toughest gun laws in the nation, restricting ownership of most guns that were not registered before 1977. Privately owned rifles and shotguns were required to be kept at home and stored unloaded, disassembled or bound by a trigger lock or a similar device.

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