In Congress, the Uphill Battle for Gun Control

Why it's been years since significant federal legislation

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The effect of bans. The District of Columbia gun ban now before the Supreme Court has been at the center of contrasting research. A 1991 study found an almost 25 percent decline in homicides and a 23 percent drop in suicides by firearms following the ban and no similar drop in neighboring Maryland and Virginia, which don't have bans. But a study published five years later argued that the assessment wasn't valid because it compared D.C. with prosperous suburbs rather than with another city, such as Baltimore, where homicides also declined during the same period.

On the streets of D.C.'s rougher neighborhoods today, it's hard to see how the handgun ban has made much of an impact on crime. Last year, homicides—about 80 percent of which are caused by firearms—were up 7 percent from the year before, to 181. That makes D.C.'s one of the highest per capita murder rates in the country. If the gun ban is struck down, the District will very likely see an increase in firearms ownership and perhaps a rise in burglaries by criminals trying to obtain guns.

But a new police unit formed to target illegal guns may be doing more for public safety than a ban alone. Every day about two dozen officers fan out across the city's roughest neighborhoods, stopping drivers and pedestrians for traffic and other offenses and executing warrants in search of illegal guns. Some days the officers come up dry. But in the first three months of the program, they seized nearly 120 guns, increasing the city's average monthly recovery by about 35 percent from the previous year. The city would have a program without a ban, and judging from those in possession of the guns, the program would most likely work just as well. Says police officer James Boteler Jr.: "Most of the guns we're recovering are from people who, even without the ban, would not be allowed to have one anyway." But, he adds, the ban doesn't hurt, either.