Search the Site

No More D.C. Gun Ban? No Big Deal

The Supreme Court recently struck down the gun ban in Washington, D.C. A similar gun ban in Chicago may be the next to go.

The primary rationale for these gun bans is to lower crime. Do they actually work? There is remarkably little academic research that directly answers this question, but there is some indirect evidence.

Let’s start with the direct evidence. There have been a few academic papers that directly analyzed the D.C. gun ban and the papers came to opposite conclusions.

The fundamental difficulty is that you have one law change. So you can compare D.C. before and after. Or you can try to find a control group and compare D.C. before and after to that control group before and after (in what economists call a differences-in-differences analysis).

The problem here is that crime rates are volatile and it really matters what control group you pick. I would argue that the most sensible control groups are other large, crime-ridden cities like Baltimore or St. Louis. When you use those cities as controls, the gun ban doesn’t seem to work.

What about indirect evidence? In Chicago we have a gun ban and 80 percent of homicides are done with guns. The best I could find about the share of homicides done with guns in D.C. is from a blog post which claims 80 percent in D.C. as well. Nationwide that number is 67.9 percent, according to the F.B.I.

Based on those numbers, it is hard for someone to argue with a straight face that the gun ban is doing its job. (And it is not that D.C. and Chicago have unusually low overall homicide rates either.)

It seems to me that these citywide gun bans are as ineffective as many other gun policies are for reducing gun crime. It is extremely difficult to legislate or regulate guns when there is an active black market and a huge stock of existing guns. When the people who value guns the most are the ones who use them in the drug trade, there is next to nothing you can do to keep the guns out of their hands.

My view is that we should not be making policies about gun ownership, because they simply don’t work. What seems to work is harshly punishing people who use guns illegally.

For instance, if you commit a felony with a gun, you get a mandatory five-year add-on to your prison sentence. Where this has been done there is some evidence gun violence has declined (albeit with some substitution towards crimes being done with other weapons).

These sorts of laws are attractive for many reasons. First, unlike other gun policies, they work. Second, they don’t impose a cost on law abiding folks who want to have guns.