Washington’s police chief spoke out in favor of tougher gun laws in the United States after statistics showed the homicide rate in the nation’s capital at its lowest level in a half-century.
Eighty-eight murders were committed in the District of Columbia in the past year, compared with the late 1980s and early 1990s when the number routinely surpassed 400 annually in the midst of a crack cocaine epidemic.
But while Washington has some of the toughest gun laws in the country, guns nonetheless figured in 59 of the homicides in the city last year.
Debate over US gun laws raged last month following the massacre of 20 first-grade students and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, by an unhinged teenager using a Bushmaster assault rifle.
Asked about a possible ban over such military-style weapons, Metropolitan Police Department chief Cathy Lanier told reporters that law enforcement cannot “stop everything from happening,” but can reduce risks.
“High capacity magazines and automatic rifles — those are two things we ought to be thinking about in terms of reducing the risk (of homicide) and reducing harm,” she said.
The Sandy Hook gunman, Adam Lanza, 20, also killed his mother, who owned the weapon he used to kill the children, before taking his own life in one of the worst mass shootings in US history.
President Barack Obama said at the time that America must act to prevent such massacres, but reform of gun laws is politically unpalatable given that the right to bear arms is preserved in the US constitution.
Washington, a city of 617,000, long ago shed its reputation as “the murder capital of the world.” The drug trade and crime has waned amid an influx of new residents and investment.
But although 2012 was the first year in decades in which murders fell below the 100 mark, anyone in Washington who wants a handgun, rifle or shotgun can easily buy one by taking a short drive into neighboring Maryland or Virginia.
In the wake of the Sandy Hook killings, opponents of tougher gun laws, led by the National Rifle Association, have launched a counter-campaign to train armed guards for every school in the nation that wants them.
Washington Mayor Vincent Gray said the homicide rate for 2012 represented “a tremendous milestone for public safety.” Four deaths resulting from self-defense were excluded from last year’s figures.
Generally speaking, homicide has been trending downwards in the United States since 2000, after doubling from the early 1960s to the late 1970s, according to a US Justice Department analysis.
New York saw 414 murders last year — nowhere near its 2,245 homicides in 1990. But in other cities such as Chicago, where 506 murders were reported in 2012, up 16 percent on the year, homicide remains stubbornly high.