WASHINGTON -- Washington's gun-control law, one of the nation's toughest, reduced gun-related homicides an average of 25 percent between its adoption in 1976 and 1987 and has kept the nation's capital's record homicide rate of the last few years from climbing even higher, according to a study being published today in the New England Journal of Medicine.
After enactment of the law, which prohibits sale, purchase, transfer or possession of handguns, except by owners of previously registered guns, the number of suicides by firearms declined 23 percent, according to the study by researcher Colin Loftin and colleagues at the University of Maryland.
The study concluded that the law prevented an average of 47 deaths each year after it was implemented.The last year for which adequate statistics were available was 1987.
While the researchers cautioned that the results in the District of Columbia could not necessarily be expected elsewhere, they said the study provides strong evidence that strict handgun laws reduce gun-related homicides and suicides.
In an editorial accompanying the article, Journal editor Dr. Jerome Kassirer said the findings were consistent with other studies and he urged doctors to take an active role in promoting gun control.
"The death rate from guns has long been a national disgrace," he said, calling for doctors to fight for a strict nationwide gun-control policy. "Now that we have the data, we must have the will."
The study said gun-related homicides in Washington occurred at a rate of 13 per month from 1968 to 1976 and declined to 9.7 per month from 1976 to 1987.
While acknowledging that the homicide rate in Washington had reached record proportions in the last few years, the researchers speculated that it would have risen even higher without the law. So far this year, D.C. police have recorded 454 homicides, 353 involving guns.
"It is reasonable to assume that the restrictions on access to guns in the district continued to exert a preventive effect even as homicide rates were driven up by conflict over drugs and other factors," the researchers said.
They also said the decline in gun-related deaths could not be attributed to any other factors, because there was no significant change in the number of homicides and suicides by other methods.
They said that there was no such decline in the surrounding metropolitan areas of Maryland and Virginia, which do not have similar laws.
Dr. Kassirer suggested physicians should "look on gun-related deaths not only as a social problem but also as a medical problem. They should acknowledge that the epidemic of injuries and deaths from firearms consumes their time and expertise . . . and drains resources from other critical health needs."