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Cities Under Fire

Cities Under Fire

Cities Under Fire (continued)

By Geoff Brown

Americans have a strangely intimate relationship with guns, one that has evolved throughout the nation's war for independence, the Civil War, Western expansion, and even the World Wars. "I think we, as a society, identify with the frontier character of American culture," says Shannon Frattaroli, whose work at the Center focuses on preventing firearm violence associated with domestic violence. "There's a unique attachment to the ideal of individuality, and I think guns feed into that. We're not reliant on others and institutions. It's the American way."

How many guns are there in America? Perhaps surprisingly, no one knows for sure. "There are about 283 million firearms in the United States," says Vernick. "And you know how we have that number? Telephone surveys. There's no other way to determine it." That's because there is no federal registry, and many states still don't require registration of guns at all.

The U.S. was created, and expanded, through the judicious use of weapons by armies and militias; few societies are as willing (or able) to quickly take up arms in times of turmoil, and as quick to defend their constitutional right to do so. Yet surveys show that many Americans, even gun owners, are in favor of stricter ownership regulations and better safety devices for firearms. "The Center polled some 2,400 people for a study we published in 1998 in the New England Journal of Medicine," says Teret, "and the majority were in favor of expanded restrictions, and for regulating the design of guns to make them safer."

Today, contends Teret, gun policy in America has largely been defined by vocal minorities at the far ends of the spectrum. But studies and research by the Center have shown that those groups don't speak for the majority of Americans, be they gun owners or not. There are about 42 million households with guns in the U.S., yet there are reportedly only 4.3 million NRA members. On the other side of the coin, groups seeking the outright banning of handguns (and repeal of the Second Amendment) face a nearly insurmountable challenge; it's a constitutional change not viewed as a pressing issue by the majority of Americans.

The peculiar place of guns in American life can also be summed up with this example: There is only one product sold in the U.S. that the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission is explicitly banned from regulating—and that is the gun. The government generally examines every other product we can buy, from toasters and baby blankets, to automobiles and airplanes, but not guns. This is the result of the firearms lobby, which has secured some of the most protective legislation in U.S. industrial history. Consider that since 2005, firearm manufacturers have received extraordinary protection from liability if their weapon causes harm or death.

The ATF does work with guns, but mostly to trace their use in crimes, prevent the sale of certain types of firearms (machine guns, for example), and license dealers and manufacturers. It's up to local jurisdictions to monitor the use of weapons in their communities; a sheriff in rural Oklahoma will do this very differently than a police department in densely populated Maryland. The sheer volume of guns is too much for most local law enforcement agencies to handle, given their other responsibilities. There's also a philosophical difference: "It's a very long-held tradition that local law enforcement didn't consider illegal gun trafficking their problem," says Webster. "They thought the ATF could handle it alone, but they can't."

"I think we, as a society, identify with the frontier character of American culture. There's a unique attachment to the ideal of individuality, and I think guns feed into that. We're not reliant on others and institutions. It's the American way," says Shannon Frattaroli, who focuses on preventing firearm violence associated with domestic violence.

As abundant evidence shows, it is very hard to keep Americans from shooting one another (or themselves), either on purpose or accidentally. The problem is easy access to guns that are easily used. Take accidental shootings by children: "Parents think they can teach their kids to handle guns responsibly," Webster explains, "but the data say otherwise. Homes with guns in them are more dangerous than homes without guns. Unintended shootings and suicide are much more common. A gun is a pretty darn difficult thing for a kid or adolescent to not want to hold."

Teret knows firsthand this tragic truth. In 1982, the 2-year-old son of his close friends was shot and killed by a 4-year-old who had found a loaded, unlocked pistol in a nightstand.

"We make aspirin bottles that children can't open," says Teret. "It is terrible that a 4-year-old can operate a gun."


IN NOVEMBER 2005, New York Police Department Officer Dillon Stewart was shot and killed after trying to pull over a car that had run a red light. The next month, NYPD Officer Daniel Enchautegui was shot and killed by two robbers. New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, about to embark on his second term in office, was determined to do something. "The mayor had had enough of getting the call at 4 a.m. that a cop is shot; that meant he would be consoling a widow that morning. He had consoled too many people in emergency rooms, and he decided he had to take on this difficult issue," recalls John Feinblatt, criminal justice coordinator for the city. "Sixty percent of homicides in the city were by guns. We decided we had to go after the illegal guns."

Mayor Bloomberg decided to try a new tactic: Would hitting the gun suppliers—no matter where they were—help get guns out of his city? In April 2006, he joined with Boston Mayor Thomas Menino in hosting a summit at Gracie Mansion with 13 other mayors from cities across the nation (including Milwaukee's Barrett) to talk about how they could work together and share information to stem gun violence in a new way: by going after the gun before it gets to the criminal.

A few days before the summit, Daniel Webster got a call from Feinblatt. The mayors wanted to hear about the Center's work. Webster hopped a train to New York and spent a day telling the group how guns are obtained by criminals, and how that process can be stopped. The mayors had plenty of questions. Webster used hard numbers to show conclusively that if those few stores that sold the majority of crime guns were shut down or forced to change their sales practices, gun trafficking would go down—and fast.

Facing a summit of 15 U.S. mayors who wanted to stop gun violence in their cities, Daniel Webster used hard numbers to show conclusively that if the few stores that sold the majority of crime guns were shut down or forced to change their sales practices, gun trafficking would go down—and fast.

About eight years earlier in Chicago, for example, police had identified and gone after just a handful of targeted gun stores—and watched the number of new guns used in crimes decline in that city by 46 percent. More data from other researchers showed that only about 1 percent of the nation's gun dealers were responsible for more than half the guns used in crimes.

Mayor Bloomberg has always been a big fan of data. Prior to taking public office, he made his fortune through Bloomberg L.P.'s financial data computer terminals. But there was a major roadblock in the flow of numbers regarding crime guns: As confusing as it sounds, the ATF was not providing crime gun information to anyone, including police departments, because of the Tiahrt Amendment. Named for U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt, a Kansas Republican, this amendment—in effect since 2003, and a favorite of the pro-gun lobby—argues that, for the safety of police officers and pending criminal cases, the ATF can provide almost no information about guns recovered from crime scenes. This applies not only to the public and academic institutions, but also to the very police departments and cities that submit the information about those guns to the ATF. Unwilling to accept the premise of this restriction that kept this information from the NYPD, Mayor Bloomberg waged a public and private campaign to loosen the amendment's (and the ATF's) grip on the data. It took over a year for the first numbers to reach law enforcement agencies, and eventually, it began to reach public health researchers. "It had been very difficult for me to obtain data from the ATF," Webster explains. "It was amazing to have such an ally."

Mayors Bloomberg and Menino were convinced it was up to them to act. "On the federal level, nothing was happening," says Feinblatt. "The mayors decided they would have to face this threat firsthand."

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