When the Supreme Court struck down D.C.'s handgun ban in June 2008, Mayor Adrian Fenty announced the city would continue to do everything it could, under the Constitution, to restrict access to weapons. "More handguns in the District of Columbia will only lead to more handgun violence," Fenty said.
Now, in a fascinating feature, Washington Post reporter Christian Davenport -- who lives in my neighborhood, Mt. Pleasant -- describes the process he went through to become one of 550 D.C. residents to obtain a handgun since the Court's ruling. As a writer, Davenport was interested in making himself a guinea pig to demonstrate D.C.'s new laws. But he was also motivated by more personal concerns; his wife's car was broken into, and he has heard gun shots from his own home. Drug dealers do business in an alley near his house.
If he lived in Virginia, Davenport could have bought a gun in one afternoon, simply by showing his diver's license. But in D.C., he describes a time-consuming process that would dissuade all but the most committed handgun enthusiasts, and presumably, many criminals. He had to enroll in a five-hour gun safety course that cost $250. He then had to travel out-of-state to purchase his handgun, since D.C. zoning laws do not allow weapons shops. The gun was then transported to a District-licensed gun dealer who works out of his home. Meanwhile, Davenport took a written test on gun safety, filed paperwork and fingerprints, and waited 10 days for the police to run a background check. When he finally obtained his gun, he had to bring it back to the police station so they could record its ballistics, to play back in case the gun is ever used in a crime.
In the end, Davenport and his wife decided they didn't want to keep the gun in their home. He explains:
Say the murdering-rapist crack addict is charging up the stairs, coming to get us. Would I, as he raises his gun, be able to fire mine? The District can make me take a five-hour class and pass an exam. But none of that ensures that in the heat of the moment my hands won't be shaking so badly that I send a bullet hurtling not into the center mass of my would-be assailant but instead into the bedroom of my neighbor's teenage son.
I'm grateful the city where I live makes it difficult to buy a gun. Had Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho been subject to a regime like D.C.'s, perhaps he wouldn't have been able to go through with his murderous rampage, or mental health support could have intervened in the extra time required before he obtained weapons. But even with all of D.C.'s regulations and barriers, there are still thousands of unregistered guns on the streets, in the hands of criminals. I have several close friends who have been victims of gun violence in the District; one was nearly killed. To fix the problem of illegal guns, we need to rethink the drug war. And we need to crack down on the sources of illegal guns, namely traffickers who buy en masse in Southern states with weak background checks, and then resell guns elsewhere.
But we shouldn't be naive. Legally obtained and registered guns are involved with crimes every day. In New Jersey, for example, about a third of all gun-crimes are committed with a weapon purchased within the state. With the liberalization of D.C.'s gun laws, I expect that statistic to rise in my own city.