Democrats are hoping that gun control won't be an issue in next year's presidential election. Gun control is a loser at the polls, and Democrats know it, even if they are loath to admit it publicly. Now, along comes Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) to put a fly in the ointment by introducing a bill that puts gun control back in the spotlight and Democrats on the spot. Hatch's bill would repeal the District of Columbia's gun control law, one of the nation's toughest.
In 1976, the Washington, D.C., city council made it illegal for city residents to own guns. The new law required anyone who owned a legally registered gun to bring the firearm into the Metropolitan police headquarters to re-register it or face future prosecution. At the time, I owned a revolver, which I had purchased after my husband was mugged in broad daylight, hit over the head with a two-by-four in front of our then 7-year-old son. We lived in a D.C. neighborhood that, while not among the city's highest crime areas, nonetheless had been plagued by break-ins and several rapes within blocks of our home.
I'll never forget the day I took my handgun downtown to re-register it under the new ordinance. The line stretched for several city blocks around the police headquarters and down toward Constitution Avenue. I was six months pregnant with our second child. My ankles were swollen, the sun and humidity were unbearable, and the gun -- a .357 Magnum -- weighed heavily in my purse. After waiting in line for a couple of hours and making little progress toward the police station, I gave up and went home. I worried all night that, with the new gun law's effective date just days away, I was about to become a felon.
The law had no effect in reducing Washington's appalling violent crime rate. The city consistently ranks among the nation's top seven in murders. Guns are plentiful on D.C. streets, yet law-abiding citizens may not own guns to protect themselves unless they were lucky enough to purchase and re-register them before Sept. 24, 1976.
I've often wondered how many other gun owners gave up that day and failed to re-register their guns. I was able to keep my gun legally by taking it to Virginia, where I owned a weekend house, and leaving it there until I permanently moved out of D.C. a few years later. But what about the others in line, nearly all of whom were black and appeared to be working people -- laborers, taxi drivers, shopkeepers? My guess is most of them lived in neighborhoods considerably more dangerous than mine. If they didn't make it to the front of the line that day, they faced an uneasy future. They could either keep their now illegal weapons for self-protection or give them up and be defenseless if someone broke into their homes or businesses.
According to a 1993 study by Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck, gun owners use their weapons to protect themselves approximately two million times per year. Although some studies estimate a smaller number of defensive gun uses, at a minimum, tens of thousands of crimes are prevented each year because citizens can protect themselves when police are not ready at hand to do so. Why then should law-abiding residents of the District of Columbia be left defenseless in a city teeming with illegal guns and criminals willing to use them?
Sen. Hatch's bill has Democrats sputtering about "home rule" since it would overturn a city law, but they'd rather not talk about gun control per se so close to an election year. I don't blame them. There's no correlation between tough gun laws and lower crime. Indeed all the liberal prognostication on Florida's "right to carry" law, the first in the nation in 1987, proved wrong. Not only did Florida's streets not turn into public shooting galleries, as liberals predicted, but 24 other states have followed suit. There has been no discernible increase in violence as a result and not a single conviction of a permit-holder for killing an innocent party.
Sen. Hatch has the right idea. Treat D.C. residents like responsible grownups -- and citizens entitled to Second Amendment protection.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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