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In recent years the District of Columbia has become an easy target for gun-rights absolutists who preach the mantra of “More guns, less crime.” The gun lobby is at the apex of its power, with conservative Republicans controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress. Feeling invincible, the gun lobby has turned its attention to repealing the District’s local gun laws. The District has banned the purchase of handguns and required registration of long guns since 1976. It also has enacted strict rules governing safety and storage of firearms. The District still has no vote in Congress and lacks full home-rule autonomy. These facts make the District a punching bag for conservative interests like the gun lobby, which can impose its views on the city through its allies on Capitol Hill. In “ The Laws That Misfire” (Aug. 7, Page 60), gun-rights loyalist Don Kates argues that the District’s strict gun policies should be repealed even though the city’s residents have overwhelmingly supported these laws for 30 years. Although Kates addresses his article to D.C. residents, many in the gun lobby really want to send this message to Congress, which is considering legislation to abrogate the city’s gun laws. Congress shouldn’t listen to the gun lobby. What the District really needs from Congress is respect for its democratically enacted gun laws, help with fighting trafficked guns, and a voting representative. SAFER IN ENGLAND Kates’ main argument is that restrictive gun laws fail to reduce violent crime. He cites “skyrocketing” crime in countries such as Canada, England, and Australia — all nations with tough gun regulations — as proof that gun control doesn’t reduce crime rates. The reality, of course, is that citizens in those countries are much safer than in the United States. For instance, England and Wales had only 78 firearm-related homicides in the one-year period from 2004 to 2005, a minuscule number when compared with the more than 10,000 firearm-related homicides that occur annually in the United States. The Small Arms/Firearms Education and Research Network examined total firearm homicide rates for several nations and found that Britain’s rate was 0.15 per 100,000 population, while the United States with its lax gun laws had a rate of approximately 4.0 per 100,000 population — not exactly evidence that tough gun laws allow criminals to prey on law-abiding and unarmed citizens. Some gun advocates, such as the controversial criminologist John Lott in the book More Guns, Less Crime (2000), even claim we would all be safer if guns were more accessible. But several independent and peer-reviewed evaluations of Lott’s work have rejected his theories, and the scientific consensus is that more guns do not reduce crime at all. Although the District has had its share of violent crime over the years, the number of homicides in the city has decreased for five consecutive years, in contrast to the national trend. The District also boasts the lowest suicide rate in the country, with one study finding that no D.C. children aged 16 or younger died as a result of firearm suicide between 2000 and 2002. Since the District is clearly making progress fighting gun violence, support for its long-standing gun laws is entirely reasonable. TRAFFICKED GUNS If Congress wants to help fight gun crime, instead of repealing the District’s gun laws, it should focus its efforts on preventing trafficked guns from entering the District in the first place. The Youth Crime Gun Interdiction Initiative Report (2000), which came from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), revealed that a stunning 97 percent of the District’s “crime guns” are trafficked into the city from outside states. The same report found that the state of Virginia was the source of 29 percent of the District’s crime guns. This statistic is not surprising considering that Virginia does not require background checks for private gun sales, including sales at gun shows, through newspaper advertisements, and over the Internet. These are common sources by which criminals and other prohibited purchasers obtain firearms. The ATF report also uncovered another interesting fact: Just five federally licensed dealers were responsible for 20 percent of all crime guns traced in the District. On the federal level this statistic is even more jarring: 1.2 percent of federally licensed dealers account for more than 57 percent of crime guns nationwide. An effective crime-prevention strategy would be to focus investigative efforts on these bad-apple dealers. Unfortunately, the ATF has been hamstrung in this effort by a lack of enforcement power, the result of a long-term campaign by the National Rifle Association to reduce the agency’s effectiveness that began with the 1986 Firearm Owners Protection Act. This effort continues with legislation currently pending in Congress, including H.R. 5092, which would protect the most corrupt gun dealers, and H.R. 5005, which would dramatically restrict access to critical crime-gun trace data. Although outside states contribute to gun violence in Washington, because of the District’s tough gun laws, there are virtually no crime guns on the streets of Baltimore, Richmond, or anywhere else in the United States that originated in the District. The District and states like New York that also have strong gun laws make good neighbors — they do not export crime guns. States with weak gun laws, such as West Virginia and Georgia, however, are a key supplier for the traffickers who move guns up and down the East Coast in what is known as the “Iron Pipeline.” Congress could severely reduce such traffic by eliminating well known and established crime-gun channels, including the gun-show loophole, which allows purchasers to buy guns without undergoing background checks. That loophole currently remains open in 41 states. �A SLAP IN THE FACE’ In his article, Kates bemoans the disarmament of civilians through handgun bans. Curiously, he fails to mention that the District’s elected and appointed officials, both Democratic and Republican, unanimously support the city’s tough gun laws. Mayor Anthony Williams, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, Chief of Police Charles Ramsey, and the entire D.C. Council all have publicly backed the District’s gun laws. Williams has called the effort to overturn the District’s gun laws “a slap in the face to me and to the people who live in this city.” Ramsey has stated in testimony before Congress that “more handguns would mean more gun crimes, more gun violence, and more homicides, as well as more accidental shootings and suicides.” These comments reflect the enormous popular support that city residents have for their gun laws. In addition, in every lawsuit brought to date by representatives of the gun lobby challenging the District’s gun laws, the courts have found these democratically enacted laws to be constitutional. Neither the courts nor the residents of the District view the city’s strong gun laws as oppressive. Why, then, should Congress repeal the District’s gun laws? The real oppression in the District is not its democratically enacted gun laws. Rather, it is that more than half a million Americans living in our nation’s capital still lack voting rights. This lack of congressional representation, which all other Americans enjoy, makes a repeal of the District’s gun laws irresistible to the gun lobby. Without a congressional delegation to protect its interests, the District cannot hold anyone accountable if its laws are overturned. This democratic injustice is a national disgrace, and Congress should think carefully before it does the bidding of the gun lobby and singles out the District for such treatment. No member of Congress would try to repeal the gun laws of an individual state, and Congress should extend this same respect to the District. Liberties such as voting, enfranchisement, and public safety are worthy of protection, which makes any attempt by Congress to repeal the District’s gun laws all the more shameful. The first responsibility of any organized government is public safety. The residents of our nation’s capital simply wish to walk the city streets without fear of violence. They understand that true freedom consists of not the power to shoot anyone who wrongs us but the opportunity to go about our daily lives without the need to maintain constant vigilance against an armed confrontation. To achieve this freedom the District has enacted strict local gun laws. Congress should not interfere with the District’s strategy to protect its residents. Instead it should focus on illegal firearms trafficking both in the nation’s capital and across the country.
Joshua Horwitz is the executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing gun deaths and injuries. He is also a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The coalition is a member of DC Vote, which is seeking to gain full voting representation for the District in Congress.

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