An individual right to keep and bear arms: Ho, hum.

The DC gun ban struck down by the Court was astoundingly extreme. Getting rid of it won’t increase the crime rate.

Now that the Supreme Court has struck down the DC gun ban, how much should we expect the Washington homicide rate to go up as a result?


There’s simply no evidence that keeping guns out of the hands of those currently eligible to own them under Federal law (adults with no felony convictions, no domestic-violence misdemeanors or restraining orders, and no history of involuntary commitment for mental illness) reduces the level of criminal violence. Nor is there evidence that allowing anyone who can pass a background check and a gun-safety course to carry a concealed weapon increases the level of criminal violence. All that matters is keeping guns away from people who demonstrably shouldn’t have them. Present law does that, but the gun lobby has done many things to make that law impossible to enforce.

With any luck, taking the “gun confiscation” card out of the political pack might actually reduce the fervor of the opposition the NRA can whip up to sensible measures such as requiring background checks for gun sales by private individuals (the current rule that requires them only for purchases from gun dealers), computerizing data on which dealers are selling the guns that get used in crimes, and developing and deploying technology that would allow police to identify, from a bullet or a shell casing found at a crime scene, when, to whom, and by whom the gun that produced that metal was lawfully transferred.

That won’t satisfy the people who think that guns are icky and who want to inconvenience gun owners as much as possible. But that was never a legitimate object of public policy.

Footnote Even if local gun ordinances were useful, the Supreme Court decision leaves most of them in place. The DC ban made it a crime to have an unregistered firearm, and prohibited registration of any handgun. A DC resident could have a long gun at home, but only disassembled or with a trigger lock, and there was no exception for self-defense, though there were other enumerated exceptions: if the text were read literally, it was a crime under DC law to remove the trigger lock from your rifle to confront a home invader. No, I’m not making this up, though both the District and Justice Breyer assert that the statute should be read to include the self-defense exception that its text omits.

Justice Scalia went out of his way to say that anything less drastic might well pass muster.

Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose: For example, concealed weapons prohibitions have been upheld under the Amendment or state analogues. The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms. Miller’s holding that the sorts of weapons protected are those “in common use at the time” finds support in the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of dangerous and unusual weapons.

Justice Breyer, in his closely-reasoned dissent, purports to carry out an “interest-balancing” test between the citizen’s interest in self-defense and the District’s interest in crime control. But nowhere in his account does he cite a single study showing that a local ban on private handgun ownership actually prevents crime, for the excellent reason that no such study exists.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: