Expert discusses strategies combating illegal guns, gun violence

In 2007, Baltimore is on pace to experience more than 300 homicides and ranks as having the second highest homicide rate in the country, gun policy research expert Daniel W. Webster told GBC Public Policy and Legal Affairs Committee on September 20.

There were 11,624 gun homicides and 43,592 non-fatal shootings in the U.S. in 2004, said Webster. Nationally, gun violence costs citizens approximately $100 billion each year.

Webster is associate professor and co-director for the Center for Gun Policy & Research at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He spoke to GBC members about statistics related to gun violence, effective strategies for combating gun violence and illegal guns.

“There are significant issues facing law enforcement agencies,” said GBC president and CEO Donald C. Fry. “There needs to be adequate funding, police support, and buy-in from the community.”

Project Exile, a coordinated prosecutive approach to combat Richmond, Virginia’s escalating problem of gun violence, has made significant strides since it began on February 28, 1997, said Webster. Project Exile is named for the idea that if the police convict someone in Richmond using a gun in a crime, the criminal has forfeited his right to remain in the community, and will face stiff mandatory federal prison sentences, often five to ten years. A conviction would result in an “exile” to federal prison for five or more years. The rule is simply, “No Guns.”

Another successful project discussed is the Boston Gun Project, also entitled Operation Cease Fire. The initiative, which began in the mid 1990s, employed agency and community teamwork to reduce gun crime. It included the Boston Police Department, youth outreach coordinators, community activists, and individuals who work within the low socioeconomic areas of the inner-city. The project helped reduce youth homicide by 63 percent.

Operation Night Light, which began in Boston in November 1992, pairs a probation officer with two police officers to make unannounced visits to the homes, schools, and workplaces of high-risk youth probationers between 7 p.m. and midnight, rather than during the day, said Webster. The probation officer, wearing plain clothes and in an unmarked car, decides which of 10 to 15 probationers to visit each evening. The terms of probation — which commonly include curfews, geographic restrictions, and other constraints designed to keep youth from re-offending, are strictly enforced.

While not all studies of police gun suppression tactics yield reductions in violent crime, research suggests that the police who are trained as special gun control units can reduce gun carrying among high-risk youth, he said. In Kansas City, which has special gun unit patrols, shootings declined 49 percent in the targeted area. Pittsburgh’s focused enforcement was associated with a 71 percent decline in gun shot wounds treated at the hospital, but statistics returned to earlier levels when intervention stopped.

“There are high levels of community satisfaction when specially trained units are used,” said Webster. “Surveys reveal concerns about harassment, but high a level of public support if done right.”

Keeping guns from being diverted to criminals works when there is accountability for all firearm sellers. This includes inspections of gun shops and sufficient penalties should a seller be found in violation. Record keeping and theft reporting is effective, as is screening of the shop owner and his employees and ensuring that sufficient penalties are imposed, including license revocation, Webster added.

A substantial obstacle to controlling gun sales is weak federal regulations and inspections of sellers that are as infrequent as once a year, he said. Few licenses are ever revoked, and prosecution of gun sellers in violation is rare.

“Individual gun dealers have a profound impact on illicit gun markets,” said Webster. “The threat of criminal actions, lawsuits, and bad publicity for dealers can alter practices that contribute to diversion of guns to criminals… removing these threats results in more trafficking.”

The Baltimore City Council recently passed a bill that establishes a Gun Offender Registry to help the Baltimore Police Department monitor the city’s most violent offenders, according to a press release from Mayor Dixon on September 17. It will require individuals convicted of gun offenses in Baltimore City to register their current address and report to the Baltimore Police Department every six months for a period of three years following their conviction or period of incarceration. Failure to comply with the registration requirement is a misdemeanor and punishable by a fine or imprisonment.

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