Overview of Need for Gun Violence Prevention

Gun Violence:  We’ve Got Work To Do!


Gun violence is a uniquely American problem.  It doesn’t have to be so.

According to United Nations and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) data,  the countries commonly considered ‘developed’ (the countries of Western Europe, Canada, Japan, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand) share similar rates of crime and violence across most categories.  However, the United States stands alone when guns are involved. Our colleague developed countries suffer a tiny fraction of the rates of gun crime and violence that we do.

 Whereas the other developed nations each measure total annual firearm homicide totals in the teens or low hundreds, our country suffers over 9,000 gun homicides each year.  Our neighbor to the north, Canada, with which we share a culture as well as a long and porous border, has a per capita rate of gun homicide approximately one-ninth ours.

Why is this so?  No other developed country allows individuals the incredible ease of access to the very guns used to commit mayhem that we do.  All others require individuals who wish to possess handguns, which are responsible for the vast bulk of gun crime and violence, to demonstrate compelling need.  We don’t.  None allow civilians to possess semiautomatic assault weapons, guns made to kill as many people as possible, as quickly as possible.  Only two states in our country have effective bans on assault weapons (NJ and CA).

Perhaps most tellingly, no other developed country endures the astonishing prevalence of criminal gun trafficking networks that move handguns from legal sale at licensed gun stores to illegal street sale that we do.  It is gun traffickers, and the ‘straw buyers’ who acquire handguns for them, that get handguns to felons, violent teens and others who cannot pass simple federal background checks.  These are the handguns used to threaten, wound, maim and kill.  It is our country’s weak gun laws that enable and encourage this illegal trade in lethal weapons, a trade that fuels gun crime.

While these and many other facts are frightening, they also tell us that it doesn’t have to be this way.  We can change it.  And, we must.

American gun laws are the weakest in the developed world.  Are you aware that, despite the gun lobby’s ridiculous and dishonest claim that there are 20,000 gun laws in the United States, there are very few national restrictions on purchase or possession of handguns and none on assault weapons?  Do you know there exists no national registration system or licensing requirements for handgun purchasers?  Only a handful of states and cities maintain them.  Federal law requires only a brief background check for handgun purchasers, which is dependent upon information housed in the National Crime Information Computer (NCIC), which information is incomplete.

The results?  Illegal handguns are used in crime right around the corner from the gun stores where straw buyers bought them.  According to data from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the average distance from the original point of purchase for crime guns recovered in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and traced was less than ten miles.  In contrast, for cities in New Jersey and New York, it was greater than 100 miles.  One gun dealer accounted, during the year 2003, for almost ten percent of all guns recovered from crime in Philadelphia, and local police confiscated over 5,000 illegal handguns that year.  The per capita firearm death rate for PA is greater than twice that of NJ and NY.

Some American cities and states have put public safety ahead of personal privilege, they have taken a life-saving tack.  They have decided to do what they can to promote public safety by enacting laws intended to make access to handguns by felons, violent youth and the emotionally disturbed more difficult.  They have also sought to establish barriers to illegal handgun trafficking.  The results have been encouraging.

According to data published by the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the six states with the lowest per capita firearm death rates in America are all considered to have relatively strong gun laws (Hawaii, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York).  And, New York City, with particularly strong gun laws and a population five times that of Philadelphia, faces only slightly more gun homicides per year.  Remarkably weak Pennsylvania gun laws rule in Philadelphia, leading to the highest rate of gun homicide among major American cities.

Even so, states with relatively strong gun laws are endangered by weak laws elsewhere. The majority of crime guns recovered by law enforcement in the states mentioned above as having strong gun laws were, according to ATF gun trace info, purchased out-of-state and trafficked there.  For instance, according to ATF statewide date for 2007, 72% of traced crime guns recovered in New Jersey were originally purchased out-of-state (PA was the top external source), the figure for New York was 71%.  A study published in December by a coalition of mayors from across the country confirms the dichotomy.  It found that states that supply interstate crime guns at the highest rates have comparatively weak gun laws.

Let’s be clear, civil societies like ours must constantly seek a balance between personal privilege and the common good, namely public safety.  American society has to date, intentionally or not, come down on the side of the former, the result being untold death and injury, as well as devastated families, neighborhoods and communities.

So, what to do?

First, let’s dispense with the myth that the 2nd Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits or impedes the enactment of legislation to create barriers to the easy access to gun enjoyed by those we all agree shouldn’t have them.  While it is true the US Supreme Court, in a recent ruling, stated that the Amendment grants individuals a right to possess handguns in their homes for self-defense, the Court also made clear that: “Nothing…should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places…or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”

It is precisely by use of the latter that jurisdictions can legislate barriers to the illegal trade in handguns.

The sad but undeniable fact is that illegal handguns reach streets and neighborhoods, as mentioned above, through a highly developed illegal trade – gun trafficking.  The linchpin of trafficking is straw buying, whereby traffickers (criminal entrepreneurs who cannot pass federal background checks) hire stand-ins, straw buyers, who can pass background checks and buy handguns in bulk to pass on to traffickers.

There are numerous legal barriers that can be put up to make straw buying more difficult, thereby decreasing the supply and increasing the cost of illegal handguns on the street, and so diminishing resulting gun violence.  We’ve seen it work in the states listed above with strong gun laws and relatively low rates of gun injury and death.

Such barriers include extensive background state checks and licensing requirements for handgun purchasers, handgun registration systems, waiting periods, requirements that owners report lost or stolen handguns, moderate limitations on volume purchases of handguns (One Handgun A Month) and more.  Each of these barriers imposes costs and risks on straw buyers and traffickers.  Individually, none is sufficient, but together they can severely diminish the movement of handguns from legal sale at gun shops to illegal street sale.  They already do.

Citizens can accomplish life-saving non-legislative initiatives, as well, to make straw buying and trafficking less likely, more costly and riskier, thereby discouraging it.  The Mayors Against Illegal Guns Coalition, an organization of over 350 mayors from all across the country has developed a ‘code of conduct’, which it calls a Responsible Firearms Retailer Partnership, of which it has gained the adoption by America’s top gun seller, Wal-Mart.  Adoption of the code would discourage straw buying and thereby trafficking and resulting gun violence.  That is why we are asking all gun dealers to adopt the code.  We have begun with Colosimo’s Gun Center, one of the country’s most notorious gun dealers and the only one mentioned in the text above.

Some sources of helpful information:

Centers for Disease Control data on state firearm death rates (Violence Policy Center): http://www.vpc.org/fadeathchart.htm

Comparison of state gun laws (Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence): http://www.stategunlaws.org/xshare/pdf/scorecard/2007/2007_state_scorecard.pdf

Most recent (2000) ATF gun trace data for Philadelphia: http://www.atf.gov/firearms/ycgii/2000/cityreports/philadelphia.pdf

Most recent (2000) ATF gun trace data for Pittsburgh: http://www.atf.gov/firearms/ycgii/2000/cityreports/pittsburgh.pdf

Most recent (2000) ATF gun trace data for Newark, NJ (for comparison): http://www.atf.gov/firearms/ycgii/2000/cityreports/newarknj.pdf

Most recent (2000) ATF gun trace data for NYC (for comparison): http://www.atf.gov/firearms/ycgii/2000/cityreports/newyorkcity.pdf

Most recent (2007) ATF statewide gun trace data for PA: http://www.atf.gov/firearms/trace_data/2007/pennsylvania07.pdf

Most recent (2007) ATF statewide gun trace data for NJ (for comparison): http://www.atf.gov/firearms/trace_data/2007/newjersey07.pdf

Most recent (2007) ATF statewide gun trace data for NY (for comparison): http://www.atf.gov/firearms/trace_data/2007/newyork07.pdf

Mayors Against Illegal Guns Coalition: http://www.mayorsagainstillegalguns.org/html/home/home.shtml

PA’s leading organization devoted to reducing gun violence (CeaseFire PA): http://www.ceasefirepa.org/

PA coalition of organizations fighting illegal handgun trafficking (PATH – Pennsylvanians Against Trafficking Handguns - Coalition): http://www.pathcoalition.org/

National coalition of state-based gun violence prevention organizations (SUPGV – States United to Prevent Gun Violence): www.supgv.org