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Gun Violence in the District of Columbia & Bill 17-93, “Gun Violence Reduction Act of 2007”

Wednesday, March 21, 2007
Statement from the Metropolitan Police Department

Cathy L. Lanier
Acting Chief of Police
Metropolitan Police Department

The following statement was presented by Acting Chief of Police Cathy L. Lanier to the District of Columbia Council, Committee on Public Safety & the Judiciary, Honorable Phil Mendelson, Chair, on March 21, 2007, at the John A. Wilson Building, Room 500, 1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC.

Chairperson Mendelson, members of the Council, and guests … thank you for the opportunity to present this testimony concerning gun violence in the District of Columbia. There is perhaps no greater threat to public safety in the District than gun violence, and it is important that we come together to discuss how the City can address it. I would like to thank the Committee Chair, Councilmember Mendelson, for calling this hearing, and Councilmember Barry for initiating the discussion by introducing the Gun Violence Reduction Act of 2007. Although I cannot offer unqualified support for the bill as written, I appreciate Mr. Barry’s leadership on this issue.

Everyone here is familiar with the impact of guns on our city, but I would like to provide some figures for the record. Even after almost 17 years on the force, I still find the numbers alone to be staggering. Last year in DC, 137 people were killed by gunfire; 13 of them were under 18 years of age. Over the past five years, 856 people—including 63 children or young adults—died as a result of gun violence. Of course, homicides represent only a small portion of gun violence in the District. Last year, for every homicide committed with a firearm, seven serious assaults were committed with a firearm.     

But the impact of gun violence is about much more than numbers.  Behind each of these numbers is a story – a story about somebody’s child, parent, sibling, neighbor, or co-worker who had an important place in a family or community. Many people who have testified here today shared their stories with us. Many more stories are never told, but the impact is no less. Each victim represents a person, a family, and a community that has been scarred and scared by gun violence.

The primary question before us today is one I have been asking myself since I became a police officer: how can the city most effectively reduce gun violence?  The Gun Violence Reduction Act suggests two primary means: increasing legal gun ownership in DC and enhancing sentences and penalties for convictions for gun crimes. Of course, this hearing is also very timely given the recent Court of Appeals ruling on DC’s laws addressing firearms in the home.  The only way that I can look at this issue is as a police officer.  As we discuss this important issue, I want to be sure that we consider what police officers in the District of Columbia see all too often: the face of a mother dealing with the death of her child because another firearm got into the wrong hands. 

My greatest concern is that even a legally registered firearm can get into the wrong hands, and lead to a heartbreaking outcome.  Our figures show that homicides in DC are frequently motivated by arguments and retaliation.  Together with domestic violence, these motives account for almost half of all homicides in the District.  Domestic incidents also lead to a significant portion of serious assaults in DC.  These homicides and assaults are not usually pre-meditated offenses; more often they are momentary lapses of judgment. When a handgun is readily available in a home or on someone’s person, the chances of these encounters turning lethal increase significantly. With handguns more readily available, I am concerned that more people would be inclined to use those handguns to settle arguments or domestic disputes, or to retaliate against someone else.

As we consider our gun laws, we should remember that young people get their hands on guns differently than adults do.  Kids frequently get firearms by “borrowing” them from family members and friends—with or without their knowledge. Young people may be even less likely to consider the consequences of having a gun in their hand.  Lapses in judgment might lead to a gun being used in a fight, or to increased accidental shootings and suicides.  Just last weekend, MPD arrested a young man who alleges that he accidentally shot and killed his 18-year-old girlfriend.  Without commenting on the merits of the claim, I would say that if it was indeed an accident, it was a heartbreaking one, and one that is just as much a possibility in the case of a legally owned gun as it is in the case of an illegal gun. 

More guns in the home could lead to more criminal shootings in domestic incidents and arguments, as well as accidental shootings and suicides.  I fear that these types of incidents would far outnumber instances in which a handgun in the home might be used as protection.

The proposed bill also enhances penalties for convictions of gun crimes.  The most significant change would increase mandatory minimum sentences for armed crimes of violence from a range of 5 to 10 years, to a range of 10 to 15 years.  Although I agree with Councilmember Barry that taking violent offenders off the streets is a necessary and critical component of making our neighborhoods safer, I don’t know whether these substantial increases in mandatory minimums will achieve that. As you know, a criminal arrest is just the first step of bringing violent offenders to justice.  The next steps are in the hands of the prosecutors, judges, and juries.  Although mandatory minimums can be a deterrent to crime, they don’t always result in offenders spending more time off the streets.  If prosecutors, judges, or juries believe a mandatory minimum sentence is too severe or inappropriate, they will often look for alternatives.  Therefore I believe we need more information about the effectiveness of our existing mandatory minimums before changing them.  Last summer the Council and Mayor Williams passed legislation instituting a one-year mandatory minimum sentence for previously convicted felons in possession of a firearm.  I think the Council should ask the US Attorney’s Office and the Superior Court to provide detailed information on prosecutions and sentencing under the new law as part of our consideration of the legislation currently pending. 

So how can we stem gun violence in the District of Columbia?  Our MPD members are working to address this everyday by reducing the presence of illegal firearms in DC.  Last year, more than 2,600 illegal firearms were recovered in DC, a 13 percent increase over 2005.  Of those that could be traced, the majority originated in Maryland and Virginia.  The Department is working with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms to formalize and strengthen joint efforts to address illegal firearms in DC.  One strategy of the partnership is to interdict illegal firearms / ammunition traffickers as they transport firearms from gun shops in Maryland and Virginia into DC.  Targets are identified through analysis of recovered guns and surveillance of gun shops. 

The Department also works to ensure that the illegal trafficking is not just displaced from one dealer to another dealer by investigating all crime guns recovered in DC that were purchased within the past year to identify its origin and who may have been involved in selling or transferring it to DC.  In addition, all people arrested with illegal firearms are debriefed to identify suspect traffickers. 

Ultimately, I think that in order to decrease future gun violence, we need to convince our young people that violence is never the answer.  As people in the Fourth District know from my time serving in patrol, engaging youth has long been one of my top priorities.  And Mayor Fenty has made it a clear priority of his administration to provide effective prevention and intervention programs for youth.  These programs are just one part of changing the violence here in DC and in so many other cities.

Everyone testifying here today wants the same thing—a safer, thriving city—but we may disagree on how we get there.  From my perspective, I think more guns in the city will only lead to more gun violence, with heartbreaking consequences.  I hope that after important debate, the residents and elected leaders of our city reach the same conclusion and stand firmly behind our gun laws.