D.C.-ATF partnership aims to reduce climbing homicide rates

January 4, 2022

Illustration by John Woolley

Mayor Muriel Bowser, Police Chief Robert Contee, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) announced a new partnership to reduce the number of illegal guns in D.C., the latest in a series of measures taken by the local government to reduce the climbing rates of gun violence.   

Although violent crimes in the District have, on average, decreased for the last several years, homicides reached a 17-year peak in 2021. This mirrors a nationwide trend shown by FBI data: U.S. homicide rates increased by nearly 30 percent from the previous year, despite the national rate of violent crimes decreasing by 0.5 percent in the same period.

In D.C., nearly 40 percent of gunfire is concentrated within 2 percent of all city blocks, primarily located in Wards 7 and 8—majority-Black communities.

Beyond the concentration of gunfire, these communities also experience the most disparate impacts from gun violence itself. Despite the survival rate from gun violence increasing by nearly 60 percent from 2018 to 2020, the death rate associated with firearms is nearly 13 times higher for Black persons than white persons in Washington, D.C.

The Metro Police Department (MPD) and ATF partnership is not the first of its kind. In July, the two organizations created a National Integrated Ballistics Information Network Investigations Unit (NIU). It aims to investigate and prosecute non-fatal shootings and violent gun offenders through a database that can connect bullet casings or weapons between different crime scenes around the city.

The District currently has two commercial gun stores, an increase from none at the beginning of the pandemic, which meant MPD briefly was the sole entity able to transfer legal firearm ownership when there were no commercial stores. Washington, D.C., has some of the most stringent gun laws; it has banned assault weapons, high capacity magazines, open carry of firearms, and has strict background checks and domestic violence protections.

The fight for D.C. statehood has been intertwined with the District’s strict gun laws for decades. Most recently, in 2009, the Republican-controlled Senate attached an amendment to a D.C. statehood bill that would have undone some of the gun control laws, which killed the bill before it could pass the House of Representatives.

The latest partnership will allow the ATF to increase the reward for information about illegal weapons by $5,000 on top of MPD’s typical reward of $2,500. In 2020, the police gave out $48,350 in reward money for tips, but of the 2,000 illegal guns collected last year, only 38 came from tips. 

While the reward amount represents a significant increase, Contee has no doubts about its efficacy. “[The partnership is] that important,” he said. “How much is a life worth? How many lives are disrupted and destroyed as a result of the use of that one firearm?”

In February, Ward 8 councilmember Trayon White called on Mayor Bowser to declare a state of emergency for the high rates of gun violence. 

“We are burying our children,” White said in an interview with WUSA9. “Something has to be done about the record number of shootings and homicides in the District.”

The city has explored other avenues of addressing the issue as well.Two weeks after White’s demand, Bowser declared gun violence a public health emergency and invested $15 million into a Gun Violence Prevention Emergency Operations Center (EOC) to focus on social services, job training, and other preventative social measures to combat gun violence. The EOC is a subset of the Building Blocks D.C. program, which works with those at high risk of being a victim or perpetrator of gun violence. 

According to the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, the root causes of gun violence include income inequality, food insecurity, lack of education, houselessness, and more. These factors, which have been exacerbated by the dual trends of the COVID-19 pandemic and increased gun sales, may have played a role in the District’s rising rates of gun violence. 

Bowser has also appointed Linda Harllee Harper to director of gun violence prevention, a new cabinet position that works with various agencies and law enforcement groups to reduce gun violence in the District. The position was created in January after gun violence prevention advocates pushed the D.C. Council to take action. 

Bowser’s attempt to add $11 million to MPD’s budget to hire an additional 170 officers hit a roadblock in councilmembers Allen and Mendelson. Instead, the city will spend $5 million to hire an additional 40 officers. Money for the original budget proposal would have largely come from funding allocated for infrastructure—the final budget redirects that funding towards nonviolent alternatives to the police.

Nora Scully
Nora is the fall 2023 editor-in-chief. She enjoys cats and dogs of all types and has been working on approaching D.C. dog owners to ask to pet their dog(s).

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