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211 million reasons why the killing goes on: It may be too late for gun control, Patrick Cockburn writes from Washington

IF THE Washington police were more corrupt and the street gangs better organised, the number of murders - 467 last year - might drop. According to this despairing argument, a city is safer when the police are crooked, because the drug dealers pay them to kick out or arrest anybody else selling drugs. In Washington a drug dealer can only get rid of a competitor by killing him.

In Los Angeles and Chicago, the drug gangs provide some discipline and there are few killings where a single gang is supreme. In Washington, the gangs, or 'crews', are simply local groups that sell drugs in a small district and whose turf is always threatened. All disputes are settled by the gun.

Last year Washington, which vies with New Orleans as the most dangerous city in the country, saw three times as many murders as there were American soldiers killed - 137 - in the Gulf war. In December it passed its 1992 total of 451 killings, although it has more police per head of population than any other city in the country.

In Washington and the US as a whole, the number of homicides for 1993 is set to establish a record, breaking the previous one of 24,703 killings in 1991. Overall, the chance of being murdered in the US is 15 times greater than in Western Europe.

The sharpest increase of all is not in the level of violence, which is only slightly up, but in the fear it creates and the belief that something should be done. Even in relatively safe suburbs, Americans feel threatened because they get most of their information about their own city from local television, whose staple is, increasingly, crime.

President Bill Clinton is trying to capitalise on these fears by taking the law-and-order card away from the Republicans. At the heart of the offensive is a push for gun control. A USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll last week indicated that 79 per cent of respondents supported the Brady Bill, passed in November, which enforces a five-day waiting period for hand-gun purchases.

By putting gun control, with health-care reform, at the centre of his administration's priorities in 1994, Mr Clinton believes he can win white votes without alienating blacks. Half of murder victims are black, but the black community saw the Reagan-Bush war on drugs in the 1980s as coded racism which failed to reduce violence. Mr Clinton is much more likely to win black support as a Democrat at a time when black leaders are demanding something be done about crime in their communities.

Going by the experience of Washington, he may be no more successful than the Republicans. With 211 million guns available in the US, it may simply be too late for gun control. Carrying a concealed weapon is severely punished in Washington, but this has no effect on reducing the use of firearms. The pro-gun National Rifle Association, the bete noire of liberals, is not so unreasonable when it points out that the strictest local gun-control measures are ineffectual.

Increasing poverty and lack of jobs in the ghettoes means that often only crime offers real rewards. Involvement in the drugs trade is so dangerous that no degree of coercion by police or courts is more intimidating. As a witness told a Washington court last month, explaining why he would prefer to go to jail than testify, it is 'better to be judged by 12 (jurymen) than be carried by six (pallbearers).'

Peter Pringle, page 13