Black leaders, experts, and activists disagree on the potential impact to the city’s Black community of a court ruling invalidating the District of Columbia’s ban on carrying firearms in public. On July 26, U.S. District Judge Frederick J. Scullin Jr., who normally sits in the Northern District of New York, ruled that D.C. could no longer enforce its ban until they found a licensing mechanism that passed constitutional muster.
Given the relatively few D.C. residents who legally own firearms and a 90-day stay pending appeal secured by the D.C. attorney general’s office, Scullin’s ruling “will have a very small if any impact” in the short-term, said Samuel Bieler, research associate with The Urban Institute. The long-term effects of the decision, should the ruling be upheld, are less clear.
City officials, politicians, and anti-violence activists almost unanimous dissented, saying it undermines the city’s safety. Democratic nominee for mayor, Councilmember Muriel Bowser said in a statement that the ruling was “troubling and poses a serious threat to public safety in the District of Columbia.” And, she promised to “fight for laws that protect our residents, reduce violent crime, and keep our city safe.”
Ladd Everitt, spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said he is most concerned about the Metro Police Department’s decision – in light of Scullin’s ruling—to charge only those non-D.C. residents with felony convictions for carrying firearms publicly. “That means anyone with a rap sheet of misdemeanors a mile long can carry guns in our city,” he said. “This is not a good thing.”
Carol Schwartz, an independent mayoral candidate, shared those sentiments, saying the District’s tough gun laws are necessary. “Here in DC, we all value our strong gun control laws and not without reason. Less than 25 years ago, we were called the ‘murder capital,’ with 478 homicides in 1990,” she said in a statement. “We have come a long way in rectifying that situation. While our population has grown considerably since then, our homicides were reduced to 88 in 2012. Alarmingly, though, this year at mid-point, July 1st, 2014, we have experienced 59 murders, a 55% increase over the same period in 2013.”
A 1991 study in the New England Journal of Medicine, conducted by a research group at the University of Maryland and University at Albany, examined suicides and homicides in D.C. compared with nearby cities from 1968 to 1987 in light of the District’s 1976 ban on guns – which was overturned in 2008. “Our data suggest that restrictions on access to guns in the District of Columbia prevented an average of 47 deaths each year after the law was implemented,” the authors concluded.
The numbers were based on the weapons-choice theory, i.e., when guns aren’t available, people use less deadly forms of force, resulting in fewer deaths. “People who have weapons on them perceive things in their environment through that lens,” said Everitt. “Looking at America today, I just don’t see how we are going to make ourselves safer by arming ourselves against each other.”
If Judge Scullin’s ruling is allowed to stand, those crime statistics could get worse, anti-gun violence advocates say, and African Americans will suffer the most. “The Black community both in D.C. and nationally is disproportionately impacted by firearm violence,” said Bieler.
For example, Metropolitan Police Department statistics show firearms are the primary weapon of choice to commit homicide in the District. In fact, between 2007 and 2011, three out of five murders were committed with a firearm. And, in the District, African Americans are most often the victims of homicides – in 2011, Black males comprised 81 percent and Black females comprised 9 percent of all homicide victims. More specifically, Bieler said, African Americans accounted for 68 percent of all firearm homicides in 2010 though they represented only 50.7 percent of the District’s population.
Researchers said comprehensive statistics on crimes involving concealed-carried firearms are not available. But, according to a report released by the Violence Policy Center in June, individuals legally allowed to carry concealed handguns were responsible for 481 incidents in D.C. and 36 states, including at least 28 mass shootings, since May 2007. Based on news reports, the study showed those incidents resulted in the deaths of 644 people – and there could be even more cases.
“These numbers give the lie to claims by the NRA and the gun industry that concealed carry improves public safety,” said VPC Executive Director Josh Sugarmann in a statement. “The Concealed Carry Killers database reveals a horrifying list of deadly incidents committed by people legally allowed to carry concealed handguns in public.”
Malik Shabazz, of the D.C.-based Black Lawyers for Justice, disagreed with the “alarmists,” saying Scullin’s decision will not have “an adverse effect on the Black community.” The self-defense advocate said, “The right to self-defense is an important one. People will be less likely to assault other individuals if they know that person has the right to defend themselves and could be armed.”
Shabazz also challenged the effectiveness of gun laws in curbing violence in Black communities. “When the laws have been restrictive, the homicide rates were as high as ever,” he said. “The overall safety of our community is not related to handgun laws but how we conduct ourselves . . . It is dependent on African-American leadership and our working together as a community to protect our youth.”