Washington, D.C.

From  Guns in American Society: An Encyclopedia of History, Politics, Culture, and the Law (ABC/Clio: 1st ed. 2002). 

By David B. Kopel


Washington, D.C., is the center of the American gun control movement. It is the city where the gun control movement's power is greatest, and where very strict anti-gun laws have been enacted.

Every one of the major American anti-gun groups is located in Washington, D.C.: the Brady Campaign, Americans for Gun Safety, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, and the Violence Policy Center. In the 1990s, efforts were made to create national anti-gun groups in San Francisco (the Bell Campaign and the Million Mom March), but both of these groups could not maintain an independent existence; Bell was absorbed into Million Mom March, which was in turn absorbed into the Brady Campaign.

Conversely, not one of the major pro-gun groups is headquartered in Washington, D.C. The NRA and Gun Owners of America are in Virginia, and the Second Amendment Foundation and the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms are in Washington state. These headquarters decisions reflect the different groups' contrasting political strengths.

Politically, the pro-gun movement is strongest at the state level. When one accounts for right-to-carry handgun laws (now enacted in 33 states) and pre-emption laws (which exist in 42 states) to abolish or restrict local gun ordinances, the net result of gun debate over the last several decades in many states has been for decreased control.

Conversely, the gun control movement is strongest in Washington, D.C. With the important exception of the Firearms Owners' Protection Act, passed in 1986, virtually all gun legislation enacted by Congress since 1968 has been towards increasing control. Washington, D.C., has proved to a forum where anti-gun lobbies can win national restrictions which have failed to win approval in the majority of states as statewide laws, such as the Brady Act. The 1994 federal "assault weapon" ban was a particularly vivid demonstration of the difference in political forums. When Congress enacted the ban, which covered approximately 200 types of firearms by name or by generic description, only four states had enacted any sort of "assault weapon" ban (California, New Jersey, Hawaii, and Maryland), and only in California and New Jersey did the ban encompass long guns.

While Congress is almost always a better venue for gun control advocates than state legislatures, a better venue still is the Washington bureaucracy. Congresspeople are accountable, at election time, to non-Washington constituencies, while bureaucrats are not. Thus, from 1995 to 2000, while Congress enacted no major new gun control legislation, the Clinton administration imposed a wide variety of new controls, such as new bans on firearms imports, additional restrictions on licensed firearms dealers, and lawsuits against firearms manufacturers.

Many gun prohibition advocates, such as the Violence Policy Center, want gun prohibition power to be further entrenched in Washington, away from the political influence of states. The VPC argues that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has the unexercised power to prohibit unsafe gun designs, and this power should be used to ban the manufacture of all handguns and many long guns.

Washington, D.C., besides being a locus for the creation of national gun laws, also serves as an important model for gun control, with its strict municipal ordinances. Washington prohibits the possession of handguns, although people who owned handguns when the ban when into effect in 1977 have been allowed to keep them. Washington requires that long guns be stored either locked or disassembled, thus rendering them of little use for defense in a sudden emergency. The carrying of defensive firearms is forbidden, with exceptions made for security personnel who protect government officials. The city imposes absolute liability (not merely strict liability) on injuries resulting from "assault weapons." The liability ordinance even allows a criminal who is injured by a lawful act of self-defense to sue the gun manufacturer. Thus far, no lawsuits have been brought under the ordinance.

In 1992, the Senate voted to repeal the liability ordinance, as an exercise of Congress's constitutional authority over D.C. Senator Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.), however, had the liability repeal removed in a conference committee. In 1999, the House of Representatives voted to repeal the D.C. handgun ban, but the repeal was attached to broader legislation about juvenile crime, which never emerged from the House-Senate conference committee. The gun control groups which do not formally advocate handgun prohibition (the Brady Campaign and Americans for Gun Safety) have opposed repeal of the D.C. handgun ban.

D.C. suffers a very high violent crime rate, and in some years has earned the title "Murder Capital of the United States." Gun rights advocates see a self-evident connection between D.C.'s gun laws and its crime problem. Gun control advocates tend to argue that the real problem is the allegedly lax gun laws in Maryland and Virginia, which prevent D.C.'s laws from working.

A 1994 article in the New England Journal of Medicine argued that Washington 's handgun ban had saved lives, until the crack epidemic of the 1980s intervened. A reply article by Gary Kleck condemned the NEJM article as a textbook case of data manipulation.

Washington's status as a gun control capital is somewhat ironic in light of its namesake George Washington. President Washington was an avid gun collector, owning over fifty handguns, muskets, and other firearms, and corresponding with Thomas Jefferson about the joys of gun ownership.


For further reading:

District of Columbia Gun Laws, http://www.atf.treas.gov/firearms/statelaws/dc.pdf  

Stephen P. Halbrook, Second-Class Citizenship and the Second Amendment in the District of Columbia, 5 George Mason University Civil Rights Law Journal 105 (1995), http://www.constitution.org/2ll/2ndschol/34hal-dc.pdf  

Gary Kleck, Chester Britt III and David J. Bordua, "A reassessment of the D.C. gun law: some cautionary notes on the use of interrupted time series designs for policy impact assessment." Law & Society Review 30(2):361-380 (1996).

Colin Loftin, David McDowall, Brian Wiersema & Talbert J. Cottey, "Effects of restrictive licensing of handguns on homicide and suicide in the District of Columbia," New England Journal of Medicine, 325: 1615-20 (1991).

See also: Congressional Voting Patterns on Gun Control

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