How Washington D.C.’s Gun Ban Led to a Crime Wave in the 80s

Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is a New York writer focusing on radical Islam. He is completing a book on the international challenges America faces in the 21st century.


If there’s any place in America where everything must go smoothly, it’s Washington D.C., the city that runs the country. And that’s true of gun control, which went as smoothly in Washington D.C. as it has everywhere else.

The formula is simple. Ban guns. Encourage criminals.

As a former prosecutor in Washington, D.C., who enforced firearms and ammunition cases while a severe local gun ban was still in effect, I am skeptical of the benefits that many imagine will result from additional gun-control efforts. I dislike guns, but I believe that a nationwide firearms crackdown would place an undue burden on law enforcement and endanger civil liberties while potentially increasing crime.

The D.C. gun ban, enacted in 1976, prohibited anyone other than law-enforcement officers from carrying a firearm in the city. Residents were even barred from keeping guns in their homes for self-defense.

Some in Washington who owned firearms before the ban were allowed to keep them as long as the weapons were disassembled or trigger-locked at all times. According to the law, trigger locks could not be removed for self-defense even if the owner was being robbed at gunpoint. The only way anyone could legally possess a firearm in the District without a trigger lock was to obtain written permission from the D.C. police. The granting of such permission was rare.

The gun ban had an unintended effect: It emboldened criminals because they knew that law-abiding District residents were unarmed and powerless to defend themselves. Violent crime increased after the law was enacted, with homicides rising to 369 in 1988, from 188 in 1976 when the ban started. By 1993, annual homicides had reached 454.

It’s an open consequences like these are considered a bug or a feature. It might just be a little of both.

Since the gun ban was struck down, murders in the District have steadily gone down, from 186 in 2008 to 88 in 2012, the lowest number since the law was enacted in 1976. The decline resulted from a variety of factors, but losing the gun ban certainly did not produce the rise in murders that many might have expected.

And why didn’t it lead to a surge of people shooting each other? Because anyone with murder on their minds could already get access to a gun.

In 2007, a panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that the city’s gun ban was unconstitutional. Senior Judge Laurence H. Silberman wrote in the majority opinion that “the black market for handguns in the District is so strong that handguns are readily available (probably at little premium) to criminals. It is asserted, therefore that the D.C. gun control laws irrationally prevent only law abiding citizens from owning handguns.”

Gun control advocates will of course argue that if only we had banned guns nationwide, then criminals wouldn’t have been able to get their hands on them. Just like they can’t get their hands on heroin, cocaine and meth.

  • Ar'nun

    Yeah, but it is not about stopping the gang violence that plagues our inner-cities because the tenants of Social Justice tell us that the young people in gangs are in gangs because of white oppression. So to help bolster the gang’s earnings, you have to disarm white working people so they are easier to rob. We can't have the oppressors fighting back and possibly hurting or killing a precious thug who could instead be rehabilitated and become a productive member of society like Willie Horton.

  • Arlie

    DC knows full well the consequences of the laws they pass….LOOK HOW RICH THEY ALL SEEM TO BECOME.

    Then there are their "unintended" consequences – perhaps this is supporting NAFTA – guns seem to go well with drugs and gangs – lets import some more crime via the black market. NO? Si, Si Senor.

    • Mary Sue

      Not to mention, I'll bet you "special permissions" were granted to all the politicians in DC.

  • polnick

    Now that the feds have restricted gun sales thousands of street gangs will replace licensed gun dealers. An estimated 32 thousand gang leaders have a large enough gun arsenal and dope to supply all their 1.4 million members. The Gangbanger advantage is that they require no background check or ID. One gang member and professional lifelong mugger who chose to remain anonymous is selling slightly used stolen leather wallets and handbags at 70% off wholesale, no questions asked. His Smith&Wesson 9mm is not for sale, it helps pay the bills.

  • patron

    Washington DC in the 1980s suffered under the worse crack cocaine epidemic in the nation. It was worst than New York City. Rayful Edmond had to be guarded by the Marines and flown in on attack helicopter because the courts were worried the crack gangs would shoot it down.

    If citizens could protect themselves, I doubt it would be so bad. With modern evils like meth, terrorist networks, corrupted foreign special forces, cyber attacks and a huge international black market who knows what would arise.

  • william

    we heard it before,we have seen it in action ,sow why are we even discussing it, it being legal gun ownership

  • william

    I saw we are nuts if we let them impose a law restricting our legal rite to own fire arms, ITS OUR RITE
    ok you enact the law when one of my family members gets murder I WILL SUE