Gun Control ::: Less Guns, More Crime
- Special Report
Less Guns, More Crime
By Gene Healy
Published 1/20/2004 12:04:29 AM
WASHINGTON -- For nearly 30 years, the D.C. government has conducted
a public policy experiment based on the theory that if you deprive
citizens of their constitutional right to keep and bear arms, you'll
reduce crime. Last week, federal district court judge Reggie Walton,
a George W. Bush appointee, ruled that that experiment should
continue. In his decision in Seegars v. Ashcroft, et al., Judge
Walton rejected a Second Amendment challenge to the District's
comprehensive gun ban.
Of course, Judge Walton is under no illusions that depriving
citizens of their right to keep and bear arms actually results in a
safer city. Nor, interestingly enough, is the D.C. government
attorney defending the ban in Seegars. During oral argument in the
case last October, Walton and D.C. Corporation Counsel Daniel
Rezneck had the following exchange:
Walton: These laws don't stop the bad guys from getting the guns.
Walton: The bad guys are going to get the guns regardless.
Rezneck: I agree with that your honor.
As Rezneck and Walton admit, the D.C. government has done little or
nothing to disarm violent criminals. It has, however, done a
marvelous job of disarming law-abiding citizens who "work hard and
play by the rules," as a certain Southerner used to put it. And as a
result, the District is the most dangerous large city in America --
edging out Detroit for the 2003 murder capital of the U.S.
Having failed in this most basic duty of government -- protecting
the citizens -- the District has responded, in characteristic
fashion, by defining deviancy down. In 2002 D.C. Police Chief
Charles Ramsey lowered his department's goals for solving homicides;
where once D.C. aimed at a 65 percent clearance rate, Ramsey decided
that solving around half of the city's murders was good enough for
Explaining his decision to lower the homicide clearance goal to 50.9
percent, Chief Ramsey told the Washington Post, "It's more
encouraging . You get these stretch goals, and when you don't even
come near it, you get hammered for it."
That's the police department District residents are supposed to
depend on. If you live in the city and someone's breaking your door
down, your only legal option is to call 911 and pray that the police
arrive on time. And you'd better pray. According to City Council
member Phil Mendelson, in 2002 nearly one in five 911 calls was
abandoned for failure to get through promptly.
Many District residents, like the plaintiffs in Seegars, would like
to have other options to protect themselves. Standing in their way
is a gun control scheme of almost comic rigidity. You can't own a
handgun without a registration certificate and you can't get a
registration certificate, because the District stopped issuing them
to ordinary citizens in 1976. If you do happen to own a pre-1976
handgun that you registered back when disco was king, you cannot
lawfully carry it from room to room in your own house without a
license. And you can't get a license.
You can register certain rifles and shotguns. You just can't legally
use them when your life is threatened. District law requires all
guns to be "unloaded and disassembled or bound by a triggerlock" at
all times -- and it makes no exception for lawful self defense. If a
burglar confronts you in your home, and you load your shotgun to
defend yourself, you've just committed a misdemeanor offense
punishable by up to a year in jail.
One might suppose that such a regulatory scheme constitutes an
infringement on the right of the people to keep and bear arms, if
anything does. But Judge Walton disagrees, declaring in the Seegars
opinion that "the Second Amendment does not confer an individual
right to possess firearms" but rather grants some vague,
unenforceable collective right.
Walton's interpretation is, of course, at odds with the fairly clear
text of the Constitution. The Framers were careful enough with
language not to confuse the "right of the people" with the rights of
a state. Just as in the First and Fourth Amendments, "the right of
the people" in the Second Amendment is an individual right.
A growing number of legal scholars, including such unlikely gasbags
as Laurence Tribe and Alan Dershowitz, are coming to recognize that
the Second Amendment means what it says. So too have the Fifth
Circuit Court of Appeals in the Emerson case and the Justice
Department. Both have endorsed the view that the "right of the
people" is, well, the right of the people. This trend is one more
reason Judge Walton's decision came as such a crashing
Gene Healy is senior editor at the Cato Institute, and one of four
attorneys representing the plaintiffs in Parker v. District of
Columbia, another challenge to the D.C. gun laws.
Parker v. District of Columbia