In the 2008 “Heller” decision, the Supreme Court struck down Washington, D.C.’s handgun ban and gunlock requirements. Unsurprisingly, gun control advocates predicted disaster. They were wrong. What actually happened in our nation’s capital after the Heller decision ought to be remembered tomorrow as the Supreme Court hears a similar constitutional challenge to the Chicago handgun ban.
When the Heller case was decided, Washington’s Mayor Adrian Fenty warned: "More handguns in the District of Columbia will only lead to more handgun violence." Knowing that Chicago's gun laws would soon face a similar legal challenge, Mayor Richard Daley was particularly vocal. The day that the Heller decision was handed down, Daley said that he and other mayors across the country were "outraged" by the decision and he predicted more deaths along with Wild West-style shootouts. Daley warned that people "are going to take a gun and they are going to end their lives in a family dispute."
But Armageddon never arrived. Quite the contrary, murders in Washington plummeted by an astounding 25 percent in 2009, dropping from 186 murders in 2008 to 140. That translates to a murder rate that is now down to 23.5 per 100,000 people, Washinton’s lowest since 1967. While other cities have also fared well over the last year, D.C.'s drop was several times greater than that for other similar sized cities. According to preliminary estimates by the FBI, nationwide murders fell by a relatively more modest 10 percent last year and by about 8 percent in other similarly sized cities of half a million to one million people (D.C.'s population count is at about 590,000).
This shouldn't be surprising to anyone who has followed how crime rates change after gun bans have been imposed. Around the world, whenever guns are banned, murder rates rise.
Washington’s murder rate soared after its handgun ban went into effect in early 1977 (there is only one year while the ban was in effect that the murder rate fell below the1976 number and that happened many years later -- in 1985). Its murder rate also rose relative to other cities. Washington’s murder rate rose from 12 percent above the average for the 50 most populous cities in 1976 to 35 percent above the average in 1986.
Chicago fared no better after the 7th Circuit Appeals court upheld its ban on new handguns in late 1982. Over the next 19 years following the ban, there were only three years where the murder rate was as low as in 1982. As shown in the forthcoming third edition of my book "More Guns, Less Crime," before the ban, Chicago's murder rate was falling relative to the 9 other largest cities, the 50 largest cities, the five counties that boarder Cook county, as well as the U.S. as a whole. After the ban Chicago's murder rate rose relative to all these other places. For example, comparing murder rates among the 50 most populous cities, the murder rate went from equaling the average for the other cities in 1982, to exceeding their average murder rate by 32 percent in 1992, to exceeding their average by 68 percent in 2002.
The failures of gun bans in the U.S. are frequently blamed on lax gun restrictions in other states. But the experiences of other countries, even in island nations that have banned handguns and in countries where borders are easy to monitor, do not support this claim. For when handgun bans were enacted in Ireland and Jamaica, in 1972 and 1974, respectively, murder rates doubled over the following decade. And take the more recent example in England and Wales, where handguns were banned in 1997: deaths and injuries from gun crime more than doubled over the next seven years.
The benefits of guns are not lost on Chicago's politicians. Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass wrote in 2008 that there are two types of people who are allowed to have handguns in Chicago: "The criminals. And the politicians." The politicians use their pull to either "become deputized peace officers so they can carry" or "often go around surrounded by armed bodyguards on the city payroll." It is just that the politicians don't want to extend those benefits to the citizens they are supposed to represent. This includes Mr. Otis McDonald, the lead plaintiff in the Chicago case. He is a 76-year-old black man living in a neighborhood infested with drug dealers. McDonald's home has been burglarized three times, and he would like to possess a handgun that he can easily access next to his bed.
Chicago's fate will be decided on constitutional issues. The decision ultimately comes down to whether the Second Amendment applies to the states in the same way that the 14th Amendment has been applied to most of the Bill of Rights. It would seem to be a no-brainer, especially since the 14th Amendment was in large part passed to protect newly freed blacks from Southern states passing laws to disarm them. Nevertheless, how one sees guns affecting crime seems to color interpretation of the Constitution. The brief submitted by the city of Chicago to the Supreme Court repeatedly emphasizes the claim that more guns cause more crime. They argue: "a handgun ban and stringent firearms regulation will best address the very serious problem of handgun crime and violence in their communities."
Despite Chicago's ban, criminals still have managed to get their hands on guns. During the first 10 months of last year Chicago police confiscated or recovered 7,234 guns, which is about one gun for every 14 gang members in Chicago and surrounding suburbs. And police found just a small fraction of the guns. What the crime data show is that gun laws primarily disarm law-abiding citizens, they do not make them safer. Even restrictions on guns, such as laws that mandate that citizens store shotguns and rifles locked and unloaded, defeat the very purpose of guns and often make the guns no more useful than sticks.