The Supreme Court is likely to rule in June on the constitutionality of the District of Columbia’s ban on handguns. The case has drawn nationwide attention, but the court’s decision will have little effect on gun violence in the nation’s capital, according to police officers and prosecutors.
Despite the ban, in effect since 1976, gunshots ring out and bodies fall every day and night across the city. Gunfire recently killed six people in eight days in one Northeast DC neighborhood. Police reported 627 gun crimes in DC from January through April 28.
According to the law-enforcement officials, politicians, and criminal-justice experts interviewed for this article, the gunplay is aided and abetted by a combination of factors, including a liberal city council, citizen mistrust of police, beleaguered cops, struggling prosecutors, lenient judges, and laws that favor defendants’ rights. All of this results in a city so soft on gun violence that it sometimes seems to encourage it.
“We are too accepting of people having guns,” says Isaac Fulwood Jr., who was police chief in 1991, when DC’s 479 homicides made it the nation’s murder capital. He’s now on the US Parole Commission. “There needs to be something done from top to bottom—the council, the police, the prosecutors, and the courts. Right now there are no consequences for having guns illegally.”
Gun violence is relatively rare across the Potomac River in Virginia, despite the fact that guns are easily bought and registered there. And there is much less gunplay in urbanized parts of Montgomery County, just over the line from DC.
Why? Activists outside the criminal-justice system blame poverty and the flow of illegal guns into DC; police and prosecutors point to cases like that of D’Angelo Thomas.
At about 2:20 am on October 11, two DC patrol officers stopped a car for a traffic violation on Benning Road, Northeast. When they asked the four young men inside to step out, one officer saw a .380 handgun on the floor behind the front seat. They called more cops. A search of the car turned up a nine-millimeter Luger fully loaded and with a round in the chamber, a silver Ruger loaded and ready to fire, a black Glock .357 locked and loaded, and a loaded Ruger .44 revolver with a sawed-off barrel.
D’Angelo Thomas was sitting in the passenger seat when police stopped the car. He and the three others were arrested, charged with carrying a pistol without a license, and jailed. Three of the suspects already were on probation, including Thomas—on a previous gun offense and robbery. When they went before a magistrate that evening, prosecutors inadvertently had not included Thomas on the charging statement. They asked to return the next morning with amended documents.
At 9:35 the next morning, the case was called before Magistrate Judge J. Dennis Doyle. Police were still working to fix the documents. The prosecutor asked for more time. Defense attorneys argued that the case should be dismissed because the government wasn’t prepared. Doyle granted their motion to dismiss, clearing his calendar of all four cases. About ten minutes later, police arrived in the courtroom with the corrected documents, but the suspects had been released.
Eleven days later D’Angelo Thomas allegedly walked up to Delonte Kent, put a pistol to his head, and killed him. Thomas was arrested. This time two judges in succession agreed to hold him pending trial on the murder charge.
The Thomas case is far from isolated. Once police arrest a suspect, the system that is supposed to prevent that person from getting back on the street and shooting someone is a sieve.
“Suspects arrested in DC don’t fear the criminal-justice system,” says Edgar Domenech, head of the DC field office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. “The majority of the gun cases go through Superior Court, and they don’t see any real jail time.”
DC police officer Tamika Hampton says she has made a number of arrests for CPWL—carrying a pistol without a license. “They get right back out on the street,” she says. “They know it when I make the arrest. After I process them, they walk out of court the same time I do. They laugh at me.”
Says Kristopher Baumann, head of the police union: “If the US Attorney’s office decides to prosecute someone, the judges often allow them back out on the street. If they are convicted, they don’t face much jail time.”
The District’s strict gun ban only appears to be strict. True, the law says it is a crime to possess an unlicensed gun—but the matter is not that simple. First, proving “possession” is not easy. If police find an unregistered firearm in a home or car, that does not prove possession. Even if possession is clear, police have to prove that the weapon is operable before someone can be charged with a crime and held.
If you are convicted, the penalty for simple possession is no worse than a traffic ticket. If cops catch you with a loaded .45 pistol in your waistband, and if they arrest you, and if prosecutors charge you, and if your case goes before a judge, and if you are found guilty or plead guilty, and if you have no prior record, you probably will serve no time. So much for the nation’s toughest handgun law.
Responding to complaints from DC residents about gun violence, Mayor Adrian Fenty last fall ordered a review of gun-law enforcement. He and police chief Cathy Lanier launched Gunstat, a program developed in Baltimore to document gun crimes and organize the system to get guns off the streets.
“We need a coordinated approach with aggressiveness by police, the US Attorney, and the courts,” Fenty says. “It’s time to do the community’s will—if you commit a crime, you have to do the time.”
Sounds tough, but any change in gun enforcement laws has to pass through a DC Council that sometimes seems to favor criminals over cops.
Since the 1970s, when it passed the landmark ban on handguns, the 13-member council has been among the nation’s most liberal legislatures on law-enforcement problems.
Until the law was changed two years ago, even a convicted felon caught with a gun in DC could be charged at most with a misdemeanor and would likely serve no time.
In early 2005 then-mayor Anthony Williams proposed reforms to toughen penalties on many crimes, including gun possession. Judiciary Committee chair Phil Mendelson held the bill in his committee for a year and a half.
Mendelson, 56, came to DC from Cleveland to attend American University. He got a political-science degree, became a local activist, and went to work as a council aide, first to Jim Nathanson and then to chair David Clark. In 1998, Mendelson ran for an at-large council seat in a field of ten candidates in the Democratic primary, won with 17 percent of the vote, and went on to win the general election.
In 1975 he launched his activist career by saving McLean Gardens on upper Wisconsin Avenue from the wrecking ball. He lives there still with his wife and daughter.
In giving Mendelson its “lukewarm” endorsement in the last election, the Washington Post called his current term “disappointing” and said his chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee was “timid” and “indecisive.”
When Mendelson finally moved the crime bill, some penalties were strengthened, but he had stripped out most of the mandatory-minimum-sentencing clauses Williams had proposed. Mendelson ignored pleas from police and prosecutors to stiffen the penalties. The effectiveness of mandatory-minimum sentences, directing judges to sentence criminals to specific jail terms, is a matter of debate. But they have been shown to lower crime in cities such as Portland, which has experienced a drop in violent crime since Oregon passed minimum-sentencing laws in 1995.
“If a drug dealer knew he would face a five-year minimum sentence if he was caught carrying a gun,” says a veteran federal prosecutor in DC, “I guarantee you gun crime would drop dramatically.”
Says Mendelson: “I don’t believe minimum-sentencing laws are effective.”
Mendelson also doesn’t believe in holding violent offenders while they are awaiting trial. Mayor Williams had proposed changes in the law that would make it easier for judges to hold suspects. Mendelson stripped the provisions from the bill.
In a January 10 hearing, police-union representative Delroy Burton testified that beefing up detainment rules would “help keep violent offenders off the street.”
Mendelson said that would never happen: “We have rules that favor release.”
When I asked Mendelson what he would do to keep defendants arrested for gun possession from returning to the street, he said, “I don’t believe that’s happening. That’s very anecdotal.”
Prosecutors and police disagree, saying that hundreds of people arrested for gun possession are sent right back out.
Mendelson also made it harder for prosecutors to charge a defendant as a gang member. They had to show that a defendant had three close contacts in a gang to prove membership; Mendelson changed it to five.