Nine year-old Eddie Smith* walked home from school on a sunny spring afternoon in 1992 and headed in the direction of his grandmother’s apartment in Barry Farms, a housing project in southeast Washington, D.C. Eddie’s grandmother had lived in the Anacostia section of Washington her entire life and was wise to the dangers that confronted the city’s youthful inhabitants. She frequently admonished Eddie to come straight home after school, determined to keep him under her watchful eye. Eddie cut through a grassy field leading to his home on Sumner Road, when he noticed Kenny Copeland, a 29 year-old drug dealer who drove fancy cars, wore lots of gold jewelry, and flashed wads of cash, driving down the street in his gold Pathfinder SUV. Eddie watched from 50 feet away as Copeland came to a screeching halt, jumped out and, in broad daylight, walked briskly to a parked car, where Lamar Jones* was seated listening to rap music. Copeland pulled from his waist a .45 caliber pistol, pointed at the driver’s side window, and pumped six bullets into Jones’ head. Copeland ran back to his SUV and sped off, leaving exhaust fumes and a dead body in his wake. Three days later, the family of Lamar Jones gathered at the local Baptist Church and mourned the death of their beloved family member. The family wept and wailed in agony, not understanding why God had taken their son and brother, nephew and grandson, whose life was cut short at the age of 25.
Two years later, Eddie Smith was the government’s sole eyewitness in the case of United States v. Kenneth Copeland. I was the prosecutor. On the day of jury selection, about two hours before opening statements were set to begin, Eddie’s uncle was in the witness room with the two FBI agents who had painstakingly worked the case for more than a year as part of a Cold Case Squad Task Force. Based on information supplied by confidential sources and old fashioned detective work, the agents had learned the identity of Eddie and his grandmother. After much soul searching, persuasion, and offers to relocate them to a safer neighborhood with better schools, miles away from the drug-infested, crime ridden streets of Barry Farms, Eddie and his grandmother agreed to testify. But on the day of trial, Eddie’s uncle would have none of it. He said there was no way Eddie was getting on the witness stand. My case was about to fall apart.
During the lunch break, while anticipating what I was to tell the judge about the government’s readiness for trial, and before resuming jury selection, we convinced the uncle that allowing Eddie to testify was the right and necessary thing to do, that otherwise Kenny Copeland would kill again and that, without citizens willing to stand up to these thugs, entire neighborhoods like Barry Farms would remain unsafe. In the end, Eddie courageously testified and identified Copeland as the killer. Despite the best efforts of Mark Rochon, a prominent D.C. defense attorney who failed to shake Eddie on cross-examination, the jury found Copeland guilty in less than an hour. Six weeks later, Copeland was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
The Copeland prosecution was a success, if such a word can be applied to the daily toil of murder and intimidation that occurs in our nation’s cities. In the early 1990’s, murder trials similar to Copeland’s case, in which witnesses were scarce and reluctant, happened every day in D.C. Superior Court; funerals laying to rest sons and daughters before their prime occurred several times a week. The city was in the midst of a crack epidemic accompanied by turf wars and a slew of drug-related shootings that left hundreds of young black men dead and wounded on the streets of the nation’s capital. Lamar Jones was just one of 450 murder victims gunned down each year on the streets of Washington. The Metropolitan Police Department solved less than half of the murders in those years – the District of Columbia was called the murder capital of the United States – as witnesses refused to testify and the anti-snitch culture took root. Most of the murders occurred in the poorest sections of southeast D.C., far from the view of tourists and the plush confines of Georgetown and Dupont Circle. Lawyers, sociologists, journalists, and policy makers debated the root causes of the drug underworld and the cultural influences that contributed to a de-sensitization of violence and dehumanization of its victims. We debated mandatory minimum sentences and demanded that politicians “get tough on crime,” yet the shootings continued.
Sixteen years later, hundreds of young men and women continue to die every year in the District by gunfire and, according to the Centers for Disease Control, over 12,000 Americans die of gunshot wounds annually. Of all industrialized countries, the United States exceeds each in gun-related deaths and violent crime. Despite the number of prescriptions offered to prevent the violence, it is the easy access to guns that make the shootings so prevalent. The strict gun control laws of the District of Columbia had little effect, since anyone could cross the Potomac River and purchase a firearm in Virginia with little effort and no identification. That Kenny Copeland, who already had a murder conviction under his belt – as a juvenile he killed his stepbrother – could so easily obtain a concealable handgun with which to murder Lamar Jones, speaks volumes to this pure insanity.
As a prosecutor in Washington and later Philadelphia, I considered gun violence in America a uniquely urban problem. But a recent article in the journal Pediatrics proves otherwise. A study of gun deaths in the United States from 1999 to 2006 found that children in the most rural areas of the United States die from guns at the same rate as children from the inner city. Although homicides are more prevalent among city youth, gun suicides and accidental gun deaths even the score among rural youth. The study examined data on 15,000 homicides, 7,000 suicides, and 1,400 accidental shootings that occurred over a seven-year period among those aged 19 and younger. The researchers found that children in rural areas die from guns at about the same rate as urban youth – about four deaths per 100,000 children. A previous study showed that adult gun deaths followed similar patterns.
We live in a country that romanticizes gun ownership and glorifies violence. We fought and won a violent revolution, survived a bloody civil war, and forcefully settled the frontier on the backs of native Americans. Today, not a day goes by that we don’t witness gun violence on our television screens and in the movies. The newspapers of all our major cities report tragic gun deaths virtually every day of the year. Yet when someone attempts to question the wisdom of guns and gun ownership, or suggests some modest restrictions on the types of weapons that can be sold or whom can lawfully purchase them, the gun lobby and Second Amendment advocates come out of the woodwork.
Gun proponents contend that gun ownership serves two primary purposes: (1) self-defense from criminals, and (2) protection against political tyranny. Neither contention stands up to scrutiny in today’s world. I understand the desire of some law abiding people to own a gun. If I thought my family was in danger and that a gun could protect them, my first instinct would be to obtain a gun. Emotionally, it is completely understandable. A rational look at the evidence, however, suggests that gun ownership makes one’s family less safe, not more so. Two long-standing, peer-reviewed studies in The New England Journal of Medicine, in 1986 and 1993, found that having a gun in the home makes it 2.7 times more likely that someone will be the victim of a homicide (with the perpetrator most likely related to or intimately acquainted with the victim) and 4.8 times more likely that someone will commit suicide.
To provide maximum protection against an intruder, a gun must remain loaded and within arm’s reach at all times. A gun safely stored in the closet, separated from its ammunition, provides little help in a fast-moving emergency. Not surprisingly, however, research has shown that a gun in the home is 43 times more likely to kill a member of the household, or a friend, than an intruder. There can be little dispute that the risk of a loaded weapon in the home greatly exceeds the benefits. (I am not talking about hunting rifles or those in law enforcement who need to have weapons in their possession on most occasions).
The notion that private gun ownership will protect us from political oppression makes even less sense. Private gun ownership was very common under Saddam Hussein’s regime and gun ownership was legalized in Germany five years before Hitler’s rise. In neither case was political tyranny prevented or even diminished. By contrast, although guns are banned in the United Kingdom, the British (call me crazy) enjoy far more freedom than the citizens of Saddam’s Iraq or Hitler’s Germany. And should the U.S. military, with its tanks, fighter jets, and nuclear arsenal, someday declare martial law, that .22 caliber pistol in your closet will do you little good. The best protection against political tyranny is the U.S. Constitution, a strong press, and three branches of government.
Nor does gun control mean that only the criminals will have guns. Today in the United States, the criminals can get a gun anytime they want. States like Pennsylvania and Virginia won’t even consider restricting gun purchases to one gun a month. So a straw purchaser (someone who can legally buy a handgun and will not have any issue with background checks) can go to a gun store, buy multiple handguns, and sell them on the street to convicted felons. It is not legal, but it happens every day, and many of these guns end up being used to commit homicides and other gun-related crimes. The easier it is for everyone to obtain guns, the more prevalent and lethal are the guns in the hands of criminals.
Although the Supreme Court recently instructed that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to own firearms and is not restricted to the ability of citizens to form a well-regulated militia (despite 200 years of case precedent to the contrary), it makes no sense that, in many states, it is more difficult to obtain a driver’s license than to buy a gun. In an ideal world, except for police officers and active military personnel, there really is no good reason to permit the civilian population to possess concealable handguns, assault weapons, and cop-killer bullets. Few people dispute the government’s right to ban the private sale of dangerous chemicals, hand grenades and bombs, and all sorts of inherently dangerous items. Why are guns so protected? What does it say about the maturation of American society that gun ownership is considered, in some circles, more sacrosanct than home ownership? If the Second Amendment really does mean that individuals are entitled to own as many handguns as they like, then it is time to amend the Constitution.
Although I would like to see the elimination of many civilian-owned firearms, I understand that this goal is politically unrealistic and, given the historical prevalence of guns in American society, not practical. But there are sensible, reasonable restrictions on gun ownership that everyone should embrace. First, we should have a national system for registering guns and ammunition. Second, instant background checks must be made a priority, and the flaws of existing laws should be corrected. Anyone with a prior criminal record, or mental health issues, should not be allowed to purchase a gun, period. Third, gun purchasers should be required to pass a test on gun safety; obtaining a permit to own or possess a gun should not be easier than obtaining a driver’s license. Just as drivers must prove they know the rules of the road and can handle a car safely before they are entitled to drive, gun owners should be required to prove they can handle a gun safely and lawfully. Fourth, gun owners, like car owners, should be required to purchase insurance, to compensate victims and society from intentional or accidental injury caused by a gun's use. Fifth, there should be stiffer sentences for illegal gun possession and straw purchasing, so that those who are not entitled to possess a gun (e.g., convicted criminals) will be deterred or prevented from doing so, or pay a steep price when they are caught. Sixth, no state should permit anyone to purchase more than one gun a month, in order to prevent straw purchases and the circumvention of other gun laws. And finally, all loopholes that apply to gun shows and private gun dealers must be eliminated. The laws should not vary from state-to-state or allow any exceptions based on the nature of the gun seller.
Kenny Copeland will be eligible for parole before 2020, free to return to Anacostia and walk the streets of D.C. Will the political forces of the gun industry and the NRA continue to promote the myth of a John Wayne America, where people like Copeland and thousands of other drug dealers, thugs, and violent criminals, have easy access to firearms, assault weapons, and the instruments of death? Or will the forces of reason prevail, those who would balance Second Amendment rights with reasonable restrictions on the sale and possession of firearms? Let’s hope, for the sake of victims and their families, it is the latter.
* - Denotes that the name has been changed for purposes of this essay.