Session 2010-11
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Evidence heard in Public

Questions 314–327



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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Home Affairs Committee

on Tuesday 16 November 2010

Members present:

Keith Vaz (Chair)

Nicola Blackwood

Mr Aidan Burley

Mr James Clappison

Lorraine Fullbrook

Alun Michael

Bridget Phillipson

Mark Reckless

Mr David Winnick

Examination of Witnesses

Witness: Peter Nickles, Attorney-General for the District of Columbia, gave evidence.

Q314 Chair: The time is 2 o’clock in London. Mr Attorney-General, thank you very much for giving evidence to the Home Affairs Committee of the House of Commons. We are most grateful. We know you are extremely busy, but we felt that this was the best method for taking evidence from you.

The Select Committee members around me-I will not introduce all of them-are here to see whether you can help us with our inquiry into firearms. We are conducting an inquiry looking at the law of firearms so that we can make recommendations to our Government. What we would like, if possible-we have a half-hour session-is to ask you about what is happening in Washington DC and how you think it may be of relevance to the inquiry that we are conducting here.

Perhaps I can start with a question to you. What proportion of the population of Washington DC currently own a gun? What is your estimate?

Peter Nickles: The estimate of the number of individuals who own a legally registered gun is less than 5%, but let me provide some qualifiers. In 1976, the city of Washington DC imposed a ban on firearms. Prior to 1976, there were in excess of 45,000 firearms that were privately owned. They were registered, allegedly, for life. Those firearms are probably out there somewhere. We estimate that maybe 30,000 firearms are out there. We had a decision by the United States Supreme Court in June 2008, the very famous Heller case, which held that there was a Second Amendment right to own firearms for protection in the home, and that struck down the ban that Washington DC had imposed.

Starting in summer 2008, the city, working with the police department and the federal Government, has been developing a scheme of registration of firearms in various conditions, a precedent to registering a firearm legally. What makes it so difficult, and what makes Washington DC so interesting as a laboratory for the whole issue of what do you do about firearms, is that we sit between two states, Maryland and Virginia, which have very different views on firearms.

We have very significant evidence that folks are buying firearms in Virginia, for example, and bringing or transferring those firearms into the city of Washington DC, where they are not registered. The complexities of what is going on in Washington DC are difficult, but if you are looking at the legally registered firearms, there would be less than 30,000, in a population of about 600,000. But my own view is that we have many, many more firearms that are illegally possessed in Washington DC.

Chair: Thank you. I’m now going to turn to a Member of Parliament on our Committee. You will not be able to see her on the screen, but you will hear her voice.

Q315 Lorraine Fullbrook: What have the District of Columbia’s experiences over the years led the authorities to understand about the relationship between gun ownership and the criminal use of firearms?

Peter Nickles: It is interesting that although politicians generally, as I am sure you know, agree on very little, here in Washington DC every politician running either for Mayor or for the city council since 1976 has supported the ban on handguns. I think that the authorities in Washington DC, including the police department, felt that there was a very direct correlation between the possession of firearms and the use of those firearms in significant crimes of violence.

Possession offences are simply based on a person’s being in possession of a firearm illegally. That happens very often here, because we have so many people who receive or buy firearms in another state and bring them into Washington DC without appropriate authorisation. They can be arrested for possession.

What we’re really concerned about is the use of firearms in connection with crimes of violence-assault, robbery or homicide. We have found that when you register a gun, and when you have the kinds of records that we have with respect to the guns that are registered and the individuals who are registering those guns, those guns-those registered firearms-have very rarely, if ever, been used in crimes. So when we have crimes that involve firearms, we have found that when we trace the firearms back, they’re firearms that relate to purchases in other jurisdictions around the United States. That is a significant problem for us.

We have also not found a situation in which registered firearms have led to shootings intra-household or within a home, but the bottom line for your inquiry here is that when you register a firearm and have the kind of conditions that we have imposed in Washington DC, you rarely, if ever, find that crimes of violence involve those registered firearms. The problem is getting your hands on firearms that are not legally registered.

Chair: Thank you. Our next question comes from Mr David Winnick.

Q316 Mr Winnick: Attorney-General, how many firearms homicides take place in DC each year and is there a comparison with cities across the US that operate looser or tighter gun controls?

Peter Nickles: Our data show that about 75% to 80% of our homicides in a given year are committed with guns. The FBI estimates that, generally speaking, some lesser percentage-67% to 68%-of all homicides are committed with firearms, and that, of course, varies from urban areas to suburban areas. Once again, the problem is that so many of the firearms used in violent crimes have not been registered in DC, but have been bought in Ohio, Virginia or Pennsylvania and brought illegally into the city.

Q317 Mr Winnick: We’re rather surprised-if I can just make this comment by way of a question-about how loose the firearms controls are in your country. There is a general feeling abroad, certainly in Britain, that the gun lobby is very, very strong in the States.

Peter Nickles: You’re absolutely correct. The NRA-the National Rifle Association-is one of the most powerful lobbying organisations in the United States. It regularly develops a list of politicians who are acceptable to it, based on their votes on gun matters. It is literally impossible to get through Congress any kind of national legislation relating to firearms.

So that brings us to the individual states. I think it fair to say that most people in the United States regard Washington DC as the jurisdiction with the strictest gun laws in the United States. If you go out to states such as Oklahoma, Texas and Wyoming and a number of other states, there are literally no gun laws. One is entitled to purchase as many guns a month as one would wish. One is entitled to carry guns openly into public places; one is entitled to carry concealed weapons.

One of the problems that we have in Washington DC, is that Congress has plenary power over Washington DC. Congress can effectively do whatever it wants with our laws. A year or so ago, in light of the composition at that time of Congress and the presidency, there was an effort to bring voting rights to Washington DC. As you may know, we have no voting rights at all in DC. That was for the purpose of having one vote in the House of Representatives. The condition came back to the city that to have Congress consider giving Washington DC one vote in the House of Representatives, they-that is, the Washington DC folks-would have to set aside all their gun laws and accept the imposition by Congress of its own set of gun laws, which have no resemblance to any kind of regulation.

I would also say that the NRA and a number of groups are behind a lot of lawsuits that we have had, and not only leading to the Heller case in 2008; we have been involved in lawsuit after lawsuit since then, testing the limits of our current effort to provide some balance between safety and the second amendment right to bear arms.

So, bottom line, Washington DC has been one of the strictest jurisdictions, out of line with the views of the NRA, with what should be the situation, and it has been out of line with many other states in the country that effectively have no gun laws.

Mr Winnick: Thank you, Attorney-General. That was most useful.

Chair: Before Mr Burley comes in, this session needs to end at 2.30 pm: you will hear a lot of bells going on at 2.30 pm, which is when Parliament starts. So we’re going to try to get all our questions in briefly before then.

Q318 Mr Burley: It is fair to say that America has some of the loosest gun control laws and here in Britain we have some of the strictest in Europe if not the world. Why do you think we still have so many problems with guns being used in crime in this country, with all of our tight controls? Can I ask you about stopping weapons crossing state borders? We have heard lots of evidence about guns coming in to the UK from Europe. Is that analogous to your problem of guns coming in from other states?

Peter Nickles: We have had very little success in stopping the illegal transfer-the illegal movement of guns across state borders. I suspect that is a problem that Britain is having now in the common market, where guns move around among sister states in the EU. There has been an effort by Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, and the mayor of DC, Adrian Fenty, and some of the other leaders on the east coast, to impose some kind of regional ban. We co-operate with the states of Maryland, New York, Virginia and so on. I think the answer to your inquiry is that guns move across borders. If in fact guns are used in crime, they will move, and there is a lot of money involved in the movement of guns. We have been following that for years here in DC, because we have the strictest gun laws. We literally have thousands of guns in this city that have not legally been registered.

Q319 Mr Burley: What, if anything, can you do to try to stop that?

Peter Nickles: One of the things we can do is seek to impose conditions on the registration of guns. We have had a gun tip line, which people can call anonymously, no questions asked. There is a significant reward. I think we’ve received some 5,000 or 6,000 guns through this tipping hotline, but until all the states get together and impose uniform gun laws, as a practical matter, it is very difficult. I don’t know what you all have in Britain-whether you have some kind of organisation akin to the NRA-but in this country, it is a no-brainer. You are not able to get anywhere in terms of any kind of uniform minimum gun regulation, so that you can keep track of guns that move across state lines. In fact, right now, we are fighting in court not only the question of gun registration, but the question of the huge guns, huge magazines and machine guns.

Chair: We’ll come onto that in further questions, Mr Attorney-General. We have no equivalent to the NRA in the UK-not at the moment, anyway.

Q320 Mr Clappison: Attorney-General, your ban was introduced in 1976, I believe, and it has only recently been relaxed. Are you able to say if there was any significant change in the level of firearm violence and firearms used in crime over that period? What happened after 1976, and has anything happened recently?

Peter Nickles: We had a pretty good track record after 1976. Of course, one can use statistics to prove almost any point, but there was a period starting in about 1986 when we had a crack cocaine epidemic in Washington DC and the homicide rate went up to 479-in fact, Washington DC was then known as the murder capital of the United States. So there was, of course, criticism fostered by the NRA and some other groups who said, "Look at the failure of strict bans on weapons." I think it’s fair to say that after the crack cocaine epidemic was dealt with, the number of homicides-particularly with guns-has gone down significantly.

Last year, in 2009, we had 143 homicides, which was the lowest total since 1966. This year we are on a trend to go well below that number, so the registration system that we have imposed over the last two years, along with the various kinds of training and other identification requirements, have been very helpful not only in reducing the use of guns, but in absolutely reducing the total number of homicides and violent crime.

Q321 Alun Michael: Could we look at the use of firearms in crime? What proportion of those are incidents of domestic violence, distinct from use in the commission of another crime or anything like that?

Peter Nickles: First, in connection with domestic violence, we have found that during the registration process that we adopted two years ago, literally no registered guns have been found to have been used in domestic violence incidents. Domestic crimes using firearms are a very small percentage of the total number of violent crimes. I have used the number before in terms of violent crimes; in about 75% to 80% of cases, firearms are used in connection with violent crimes in DC. Most of those offences are gang related or crime related; they are not related to domestic incidents.

Q322 Nicola Blackwood: This inquiry is, in part, a response to some very tragic events that occurred in Cumbria, where an individual who had a number of convictions was licensed to carry a shotgun. He used a legal weapon to kill a number of people. We are having a debate at the moment about whether it is appropriate for those people who have convictions or have been sentenced to custody for a period of three years or less to be permitted to carry weapons under certain conditions. I wonder what the situation is in the US. Do you prohibit individuals who, for example, have a history of domestic abuse or other violent crimes from carrying weapons?

Peter Nickles: We have very strict requirements on your ability to apply to register a firearm. We exclude folks who have been convicted of felonies, who have some mental problem in their background and who have a problem of domestic abuse. We are trying, through the registration process, to eliminate those individuals who have a propensity to violence who we think may be reasonably thought to be in a situation where they would commit a crime and then have a weapon to make that crime even more deadly. So we have very strict preconditions on the application process to register for a weapon. To look at your example, if that individual had any felony, mental problem or domestic violence problem, they could not register a firearm in Washington DC.

Q323 Nicola Blackwood: May I carry on and ask about the prohibition of people with certain mental health problems? We are also discussing the role that our doctors will play in the application process in clearing an individual as being appropriate to hold a firearm. How does that work in the US?

Peter Nickles: Individuals who have been found not to be mentally competent by appropriate authorities-we have a Department of Mental Health, so individuals who go through that process-are ineligible to register a firearm. It is a very important area. We dealt with it very thoughtfully, because we don’t want to exclude people arbitrarily or unnecessarily, but we look very carefully at the background of each individual who seeks to register a firearm.

Chair: Thank you. It would be helpful if our Clerks talked to your staff about getting a note on your registration procedures. Two final questions, first from Mark Reckless.

Q324 Mark Reckless: What measures do you have in place to ensure responsible gun ownership? Do you see airguns as part of that regime?

Peter Nickles: With respect to airguns, you have to be 18 or older to purchase or possess an air weapon, and you can’t discharge or possess an air weapon on public space within the city. As to the conditions that apply to registration, let me go through some of them, because we have-the NRA does not like this-a significant series of preconditions that apply to the registration of a firearm. First, you have to submit fingerprints for a national criminal background check and for identification purposes. Secondly, the handguns that will be subject to the registration process are submitted to our police department for a ballistics identification procedure, for which the registration imposes a fee. If a crime is later committed with a firearm and that firearm has not been registered, we can then trace it back to the individual who put the gun up for registration.

We also have a test so that the registrant has to show a significant familiarity with the laws pertaining to firearms. We have vision tests and training-individuals have to take at least an hour of firearms training at a firing range and at least four hours of classroom instruction. We also have to look at the background of the individual. If the registrant is a new resident of the district, we look very carefully at that individual. The registration lasts for three years, and at the end of the three years, the registration must be renewed. The firearm certificate includes photographs so that law enforcement can more easily find these legally registered firearms.

We have a background check once every six years to confirm that the individual continues to meet the registration qualifications. We also have a very important requirement that if the gun is sold, lost or destroyed, that information must be given to the police department. So we have over a period of some time developed a significant set of requirements, which are now the subject of litigation where we have been asked to justify these preconditions under the second amendment.

Q325 Bridget Phillipson: To what extent does the district see control of the supply of guns as the key to solving gun violence in the inner city and what other strategies do you use for this?

Peter Nickles: The supply of guns is critical to the crime programmes that we enforce here in Washington DC. We have tried to work with other states. We have tried to work with Congress with respect to the supply issue. In all candour I have to tell you that we have not been that successful simply because each state regulates in a very different fashion and because Congress has been so reluctant to deal with the issue. My own view, having looked at this for some time, is that if one could impose a modicum of control over the supply of firearms, one can impose a significant limitation on violent crime with firearms.

Q326 Chair: Thank you. You mentioned the age limit, Mr Attorney, and one particular gun-airguns. Is there an age limit on any of the other guns?

Peter Nickles: Yes, there is an age limit of 21 on the other weapons. For airguns, it is 18 years of age. It is interesting that in DC we have been registering guns for almost two years and my understanding is that we have registered only about 1,000 firearms during that period. That indicates first that people do not like to go through the preconditions we have and secondly folks, I guess, have the view that they can get the firearms in other ways if they wish to have them.

Q327 Chair: That is very helpful. It is almost 2.30 pm and Parliament is about to start. I hope that you found that a more pleasant experience than appearing on Capitol Hill and being cross-examined by one of the congressional Committees. Have there been any congressional inquiries into firearms or has the NRA been able to stop even that?

Peter Nickles: Let’s say there have been hearings. I was at a hearing about six months ago with the head of the Capitol police, the head of the Park Police, and the head of own Police Department. The basic point we were making was that Washington DC is a unique city with all the embassies and all the demonstrations, with the meetings of the IMF, the World Bank and so on and so requires a stricter regime of gun control than, say, Wyoming or Oklahoma

Chair: Indeed.

Peter Nickles: I must say that very few Congressmen showed up and the result of the hearing was that Congress didn’t do anything because the NRA had done its homework before the hearing. So to some extent when you have all the senior police officers dealing with the city, the Capitol police who guard the very Congressmen who are in the hands of the NRA, the Park Police, the Washington Metropolitan Police Department all taking the uniform view that we must find a balance and then Congress not doing anything, it is very disappointing.

Chair: Mr Attorney, I know you are extraordinarily busy, so may I on behalf of this Committee thank you so much for participating in this evidence session? We will send you a copy of our report and your evidence will be part of that report. On behalf of the Committee as well could I invite you, should you be visiting London, to come and meet us here in the House of Commons? If there is any further information that you think it would be helpful for us to read before our conclusions are fashioned I should be most grateful if you could forward that on. Could I thank the Embassy staff who have made this possible, your own staff and our staff here for participating in this evidence session? Thank you very much.

Peter Nickles: Thank you. This has been very interesting.

Chair: Order. The session is closed.