How D.C. Is Addressing An Ongoing Spike In Gun Violence Emergency legislation that makes it illegal to possess a "ghost gun" or kit used to assemble one is among a host of initiatives that D.C. officials hope will reduce homicides.
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NPR logo How D.C. Is Addressing An Ongoing Spike In Gun Violence

How D.C. Is Addressing An Ongoing Spike In Gun Violence

So far, 38 ghost guns have been recovered in the District, setting the city on pace to retrieve around 180 by the end of the year, said D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham. Haven Daley/AP Photo hide caption

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Haven Daley/AP Photo

Officials in D.C. grappling with an increase in homicides unveiled emergency legislation aimed at a new threat: so-called "ghost guns." Ghost guns are home-assembled firearms, often built from kits easily purchased online, and they're especially difficult for law enforcement to trace because they lack serial numbers.

At a press briefing on Friday, Mayor Muriel Bowser proposed an emergency measure that would make it illegal to possess any kind of ghost gun — including partially completed ghost guns, ghost gun kits or 3-D printed firearms.

"The message we're sending with this legislation is simple. If you assist with, participate in or profit from bloodshed in our community, we will hold you accountable," Bowser said at the briefing.

The emergency legislation, slated to be presented to the D.C. Council next week, puts the penalty for the misdemeanor possession up to a year. If a person has prior convictions, that goes up to 10 years.

The permanent version of the legislation is currently pending before the Council; it would also include a provision allowing victims to sue the manufacturers of ghost guns for damages.

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The recent rise of ghost guns in the District has been dramatic. In 2017, MPD recovered three such weapons. That number jumped to 116 last year. Thirty-eight have been recovered so far in 2020, which D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham said puts the District on pace to recover 180 this year.

"There is clearly an increased market for these weapons," he said Friday. "And our concern is that these ghost guns sidestep state and federal regulations on laws, on firearms by law, licensed gun manufacturers."

Charged With Homicide, Back On The Street

The emergency legislation is just one of a host of initiatives that District officials hope will turn the tide of a worrying spike in homicides.

D.C. has become safer and has seen a steady drop in violent crime over the years. Once the "murder capital" of the nation, homicides in the District hit a 20-year low in 2012. But after years of declines or plateaus, the number of homicides in the District of Columbia began a sharp climb in 2018, hitting an uncomfortable milestone last year: 166, the highest number of homicides since 2008.

Already this year, the District is on pace with that record, with 25 homicides so far this year — compared to 26 this time last year.

Almost all of these deaths are gun-related and most are happening in Wards 5, 7 and 8.

A shooting last weekend highlighted some of the thorniest issues on stemming gun violence in the District. In an interview with WAMU, Newsham said the two suspects had lengthy criminal histories and were under pretrial supervision, but those consequences weren't enough to protect the public, including both the victim who died and a bystander struck by a bullet while walking down the street.

"I think that that type of crime is completely preventable. If our criminal justice partners will start taking the gun crimes in our city more seriously," he said.

Newsham wants a more robust criminal justice response, including rethinking the release of violent offenders awaiting trial into the community. There are currently 16 people charged with homicide in the District — 15 of them involving guns — and all of them are currently out on pretrial release, with the possibility they might re-offend.

Newsham said someone who's been arrested and charged with homicide ending up back on the streets has an effect on the community.

"That can have a chilling impact not only on the people who live there, but imagine how it impacts the witnesses to that homicide. They can be intimidated by that. They can decide that they're not going to testify in the case."

Cracking Down On Illegal Guns

Newsham is also concerned with the number of repeat offenders. In 2018, he said, about 50% of the people arrested for homicide had a prior gun offense. In 90% of those cases, the suspect had a criminal history with an average of 10 arrests. And in a third of those cases, the person was under pretrial or parole supervision at the time they committed the homicide.

"We need to treat violent offenders differently than we are right now ... I am a firm believer in that right of an individual to be innocent until they're proven guilty," he said. "By the same token, everybody else in our community has an absolute right to live without the fear of gun violence. And when you release violent gun offenders back into the community, you're impacting all of those people's right to be safe."

D.C. is unique in that all local felony charges — serious crimes like robbery and murder, as well as most misdemeanors — are prosecuted by the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia. Newsham said he's had conversations with the new U.S. Attorney in the role, Timothy Shea, and is encouraged that he will continue efforts to prosecute felons in possession cases in federal court.

The flow of illegal firearms — "ghost" guns and otherwise — into D.C. is another major factor. Virginia is the largest source of guns used in D.C. crimes. Newsham points to increased cooperation with regional partners in tighter enforcement of existing laws to prevent guns from coming into the District illegally. That includes a crackdown on so-called 'straw purchases.' That's when someone purchases a firearm legally in a place with less restrictive gun laws, like Virginia, and sells it in a private sale across state lines illegally. The original owner then reports the firearm lost or stolen.

In fact, lawmakers in neighboring Virginia are taking on the Commonwealth's famously lenient gun laws. Newsham and other officials are watching with cautious optimism as the General Assembly in Richmond advances a slew of new gun regulations — including limiting handgun purchases to one per month, establishing universal background checks, creating a red flag law and tightening gun restrictions for domestic abusers.

'The Gunshot That Didn't Go Off'

A different approach by D.C. officials is to address the underlying issues that lead to violent crime. Violence interruption programs — the two main ones are operated by the Office of the Attorney General and the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement — are designed to intervene and prevent violence before it takes place, tapping trusted members of a community to identify people who are at risk of either being victims of gun violence or committing gun violence.

D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) told WAMU that the Council tripled its funding for violence interruption programs from two years ago to approximately $5 million. He added that in the past there wasn't money earmarked for such programs.

"That's part of the reason why we haven't been as equipped as we would want to to have this type of rapid response," said Allen, who chairs the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety. "We've had to essentially start from scratch and build capacity and train the type of violence, intervention and violence prevention workers from scratch. And that's a lot of hard work to do."

Despite a few high-profile instances involving children or other innocent bystanders, most cases of gun violence in D.C. are not random.

"Almost every case is between individuals where there is some type of conflict. And so if we can find who the individual is, who is in conflict, identify the relationship that is in conflict and in work to try to remove them from that situation, as well as remove the firearm for that situation," Allen said. "We aim to reduce gun violence overall."

This approach and the funding to ramp it up is still relatively new in the District, so the effects of the programs are limited so far and difficult to measure.

"How do you measure the gunshot that didn't go off? How do you measure the violence that didn't take place?" Allen said.

But by other yardsticks — people connected with supportive services and jobs — he said efforts are measurable and will be things to look for in the future.

These are the types of programs that D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine believes will be most effective in creating long-term solutions. He said there's a tendency to look at violent crime as the problem, but it's just the tip of the iceberg.

"What's underneath are a lot of factors," he told WAMU.

And those factors — poor education and employment opportunities, poverty, hopelessness and lack of empathy — are what the AG's office is trying to address in order to stop the cycle of violence through restorative justice, diversion and violence interruption programs. He cites low rates of recidivism, especially in programs that target kids.

Rehabilitation From Day One

For Racine, the answer — even for repeat offenders — is intense rehabilitation and support services, not longer periods of incarceration.

The way to prevent them from re-offending, he said, is to begin rehabilitative efforts on day one of incarceration — services like mental health, workforce development, education — and make it intense.

"Within six months of their release date, the chances of a person re-offending go way down. And we know that. But we don't yet invest fully in intensive rehabilitative services on day one," he said.

"That's the recipe. Otherwise, what you can do is you can lock people up for 25, 30 years, and you hope the period of incapacitation reduces crime," he said. "But that's not fair. That's not right. And the data shows that what that does is it creates a class of incarcerated people, mostly brown and black, who will come out in 20 to 30 years, and to the extent they haven't aged out of criminal behavior, they're going to engage in it again, because the services that we keep talking about haven't been offered and delivered."

Despite their philosophical differences, Racine praises Newsham and the Metropolitan Police Department and said that they are properly focused on tackling the crime at the tip of the iceberg.

"I actually think our police department — while not perfect — is far better than a whole lot of other urban police departments, where the relationship is toxic," he said. "Where the philosophical differences may come about is when we get beyond the tip of the iceberg. And I just think you've got to attack the whole iceberg."

Allen, Newsham, Racine and others are hopeful that once these efforts and the crackdown on the flow of firearms from Virginia gain better traction, D.C. will see a difference.

Maureen Pao is a reporter in the WAMU newsroom.

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