Armed Citizens Mean a Safer City

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It is one of the benefits of being a politician. While handguns are banned for citizens in Washington, D.C., congressmen are allowed to have a gun for self-protection on the Capitol grounds. Well-known liberal politicians such as Senators Chuck Schumer and Ted Kennedy have armed bodyguards. The wives of politicians, such as Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle’s wife, Linda, also have bodyguards. Undoubtedly, these politicians and their families have extremely good reasons for this protection, but many other Americans, especially those living with the high crime rates in D.C., also feel the same way.

Thank goodness the U.S. House of Representatives finally voted to overturn D.C.’s handgun ban.

While these politicians have protection both in their homes and as they travel around in public, since September 24, 1976, other 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. Yet, with a murder rate of 46 per 100,000 people in 2002, the District easily holds the title of the U.S. murder capital among cities with over 500,000 people. This was not even close to being the case prior to the ban.

Crime rose significantly after 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. During this same time, robberies fell from 1,514 to 1,003 per 100,000 and then rose by over 63 percent, up to 1,635. The five-year trends are not some aberration. In fact, while murder rates have varied over time, during the almost 30 years since the ban, the murder rate has only once fallen below what it was in 1976.

These pre-law drops and subsequent increases were much larger than any changes in neighboring Maryland and Virginia. For example, the District’s murder rate fell during the same five-year period from 3.5 to 3 times more than in the neighboring states and rose back up after the ban to 3.8 times more.

The bill being voted on will “restore the right of self defense in the home.” When the ban passed, criminals had less to worry about from armed citizens and burglaries soared by 56 percent in the five years. Disassembled, unloaded, and locked long guns are essentially useless for self-defense. With police response times in the District averaging 8 minutes and 25 seconds, one doesn’t always have the luxury of waiting for police to respond.

Surely the ban cannot be blamed for all the District’s crime problems. The police department has had severe problems over hiring standards and there have been management and morale issues.

But even cities with far better police agencies have seen crime soar in the wake of handgun bans. Chicago, whose ban on new handguns started in 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 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. 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.

The irony over the gun-ban debate is that Democratic national standard bearers at least publicly give lip service to the claim that Americans have an individual right to own guns for self-protection. Senator John Kerry has said, “I believe that the Constitution, our laws and our customs protect law-abiding American citizens’ right to own firearms.” Senator John Edwards claims “I believe that the 2nd Amendment protects Americans’ right to own firearms for purposes like hunting and personal protection….” Senator Tom Daschle, the Democratic minority leader, has also just affirmed his support for the Second Amendment in ads airing in his tight race in South Dakota. These politicians’ support for an individual right to own guns for protection hardly squares with threats to filibuster the bill to end the ban when it reaches the Senate.

Proponents of the bans claim that the laws failed because guns leaked into the District and Chicago from neighboring areas, but there was not even the smallest reduction in crime. We all want to take guns from criminals. The problem is that gun bans appear to have disarmed only law-abiding citizens while leaving criminals free to prey on the populace.

John Lott [send him mail], a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of The Bias Against Guns (Regnery 2003).

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