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John R. Lott Jr.: D.C. Handgun Ban

Is banning handguns a "reasonable regulation"? The District of Columbia certainly hopes that the Supreme Court thinks so.

D.C. filed a brief last week asking the U.S. Supreme Court to let it keep its 1976 handgun ban, but how the city argued its case was what was most surprising. Instead of spending a lot of time arguing over what the constitution means, the city largely made a public policy argument. D.C. argues that whatever one thinks about the Second Amendment guaranteeing people a right to own guns, banning handguns should be allowed for public safety reasons.

Claiming that the Second Amendment doesn't protect individual rights might be a tough sell, but the city's public safety argument will be at least as tough. After the ban, D.C.'s murder rate only once fell below what it was in 1976. From 1977 to 2003, there were only two years when D.C.'s violent crime rate fell below the rate in 1976. After the ban, DC’s murder and violent rates rose relative to Maryland and Virginia as well as relative to other cities with more than 500,000 people.

But it is not just D.C. that has experienced increases in murder and violent crime after guns are banned. Chicago also experienced an increase after its ban in 1982. Island nations supposedly present ideal environments for gun control because it is relatively easy for them to control their borders, but countries such as Great Britain, Ireland, and Jamaica have experienced large increases in murder and violent crime after gun bans. For example, after handguns were banned in 1997, the number of deaths and injuries from gun crime in England and Wales increased 340 percent in the seven years from 1998 to 2005.

Passing a gun ban simply doesn't mean that we are going to get guns away from criminals. The real problem is that if it is the law-abiding good citizens who obey these laws and not the criminals, criminals have less to fear and crime can go up.

D.C.’s brief makes a number of other claims:

The ban comes "nowhere close to disarmament of residents. The District's overwhelming interest in reducing death and injury caused by handguns outweighs respondent's asserted need . . . ." The obvious key here is that DC says people can use rifles and shotguns for self-defense. D.C. also adds that they don't believe that the regulations that lock up and require the disassembling of guns does not "prevent the use of a lawful firearm in self-defense."

But locked guns are simply not as readily accessible for defensive gun uses. In the U.S., states that require guns be locked up and unloaded face a 5 percent increase in murder and a 12 percent increase in rapes. Criminals are more likely to attack people in their homes and those attacks are more likely to be successful.

Since potentially armed victims deter criminals, storing a gun locked and unloaded actually encourages increased crime.

"All too often, handguns in the heat of anger turn domestic violence into murder."

To put it bluntly, criminals are not your typical citizens. Few people should be fearful of those who they are in relationshipswith. Almost 90 percent of adult murders already have a criminal record as an adult. As is well known, young males from their mid-teens to mid-thirties commit more than their share of crime, but even this is categorization can be substantially narrowed. We know that criminals tend to have low IQ’s as well as atypical personalities. For example, delinquents generally tended to be more “assertive, unafraid, aggressive, unconventional, extroverted, and poorly socialized,” while non-delinquents are “self-controlled, concerned about their relations with others, willing to be guided by social standards, and rich in internal feelings like insecurity, helplessness, love (or its lack), and anxiety.” Other evidence indicates that criminals tend to be more impulsive and put relatively little weight on future events. Finally, we cannot ignore the unfortunate fact that crime (particularly violent crime even more so murder) is disproportionately committed against blacks and by blacks.

"handguns cause accidents, frequently involving children. The smaller the weapon, the more likely a child can use it, and children as young as three years old are strong enough to fire today's handguns."

Accidental gun deaths among children are, fortunately, much rarer than most people believe. With 40 million children in the United States under the age of 10, the Centers for Disease Control indicates that there were just 20 accidental gun deaths in 2003. 56 children under the age of 15. While guns get most of the attention, children are 41 times more likely to die from accidental suffocation, 32 times more likely to accidentally drown and 20 times more likely to die as a result of accidental fires. Looking at all children under 15, there were 56 accidental gun deaths in 2003— still a fraction of the deaths resulting from these other accidents for only the younger children.

Despite the image of children firing these guns and killing themselves or other children, the typical person who accidentally fires a gun is an adult male, usually in his 20s. Accidental shooters overwhelmingly have problems with alcoholism and long criminal histories, particularly arrests for violent acts. They are also disproportionately involved in automobile crashes and are much more likely to have had their driver's licenses suspended or revoked. Even if gun locks could stop children from using guns, gun locks are simply not designed to stop adult males from firing their own guns — even if they were to use the gun locks.

Of course, D.C. makes other claims as well, but the city’s crime problems and the fact that they began after the gun ban are hardly a secret. After the ban, D.C. regularly ranked number one in murder rates for cities over 500,000 people. That wasn’t even close to being true before the ban. The fact that D.C. must argue that the gun ban reduced the murder rate shows how incredibly weak the city's case really is.

*John Lott is the author of the book "Freedomnomics," and is a Senior Research Scientist at the University of Maryland.