D.C. residents say crime top concern, but few think tougher sentences are the answer

AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

A new Washington Post poll of more than 900 Washington, D.C. residents found that crime was by far the top concern of respondents, though it appears that there’s little appetite for new gun control laws or increasing the amount of prison time for those convicted of violating the gun laws already on the books in our nation’s capitol.

According to the survey, about 30% of respondents say that don’t feel safe in their neighborhoods; a figure climbs to about 4 in 10 respondents when narrowed down to the city’s most violence-plagued neighborhoods.

Residents describe hearing gunshots, seeing police converge at crime scenes and learning about violent crime and property crimes on neighborhood email discussion groups or social media. About 1 in 6 residents say someone in their household has been a victim of violent crime in the past five years, including 23 percent of Black residents, 8 percent of White residents and 21 percent of those who are Hispanic, Asian or of other backgrounds.

Charlene Battle, 54, a D.C. native who works as a medical insurance examiner, has lived in Ward 8 for the past 20 years. She said she was trying to relax on her couch one recent Sunday afternoon when the popping sounds of gunshots shook her apartment.

“I was like, okay, this thing is close to me,” she said. “And that makes you so afraid. It makes you not want to walk out the front door.”

The new WaPo poll found that 36% of respondents said that “crime/violence/guns” is the biggest problem facing the District today, with “affordable housing” coming in a distant second place at 14%. I think it’s very interesting that the Post decided to lump “guns” in with crime and violence for this poll, especially given the fact that a majority of respondents say they don’t believe that increasing the sentences for those convicted of violating D.C.’s gun control laws.

The Post poll finds 63 percent of residents think violent crime would be reduced by using outreach workers, such as violence interrupters, to quell disputes before they escalate. And an overwhelming 82 percent say that spending more money on economic opportunities in impoverished neighborhoods would be effective, including nearly half who think this would reduce crime “a lot.” Fewer than half of residents, 44 percent, say increasing prison sentences would reduce crime.

Nearly 6 in 10 residents (59 percent) say“increasing the number of police officers patrolling communities” would reduce crime, numbers that are about even across wards of the District.

Note, by the way, that the Post didn’t ask specifically about the desire for any new gun control laws, perhaps because D.C. already has almost every gun control law that you can think of on the books, and the few nods towards the right of the people to keep and bear arms (like D.C.’s “shall issue” concealed carry licensing system) have come about because of court decisions and not any action willingly taken by the D.C. City Council.

Still, it’s worth pointing out that the support for increasing the number of officers on the street is much higher than the number of respondents who’d like to see longer prison sentences for violating the District’s gun laws. That tells me that even in Washington, D.C. most residents would rather see current laws enforced rather than putting new laws on the books.

Perhaps the most important bit of evidence pointing in that direction is the fact that large majorities of respondents say they think violent crime can be most impacted through things like “violence interrupters” and addressing “root causes” like high unemployment and a lack of jobs in low-income neighborhoods. That’s not a necessarily a pro-Second Amendment point of view, but it does indicate a great deal of skepticism on the part of D.C. residents when it comes to the idea that putting more non-violent, possessory gun control laws on the books is going to make D.C. a safer place.

Given that a recent study shows that just a few hundred people are responsible for a majority of the violent crime in the District, I’d say that skepticism is warranted even among those who hate the fact that we have a right to keep and bear arms in self-defense. But the anemic support for imposing longer prison sentences on gun law offenders is also another warning sign for Democrats that large swathes of their base aren’t interested in old-school gun control laws that impose criminal penalties and prison time for things like possessing a firearm without a license, even if those same voters aren’t in favor of explicitly expanding our Second Amendment rights either.

As it turns out, support for the Second Amendment isn’t the only reason to oppose the gun control lobby’s agenda, which may very well complicate the Democrats’ efforts to convince voters that they’re not soft on crime by cracking down on guns. I suspect that argument isn’t going be persuasive at all among conservatives and the vast majority of independents, and even a substantial number of Democrats will be unmoved by the Biden administration’s push for public safety if it results in more arrests, charges, and prosecutions of non-violent offenders.

That doesn’t mean those voters will be running out to join the NRA anytime soon, but Democrats’ touting new gun control laws and further restrictions on gun owners isn’t likely to motivate their base to turn out in November either. The results of this Washington Post poll tell me that while crime is certainly seen as a big problem, old-school gun control isn’t seen as the answer by many voters, including a surprisingly large number of folks on the left.