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Front & Center | PPI | February 1, 2001
Tougher Enforcement of Gun Laws: A Feasible Strategy for Bipartisan Action on Gun Violence
John Cohen

After eight years of highly charged political debate the United States still lacks a cohesive and comprehensive strategy to prevent gun related crime and violence. But there is one area where we could achieve a bipartisan breakthrough: beefing up enforcement of gun laws. The reason is simple. In an effort to counter Democratic proposals for new gun laws, both President George W. Bush and many Congressional Republicans talked constantly during the 2000 campaign about weak enforcement of the laws already on the books. Now that President Bush is in office and Republicans control both Houses of Congress, Democrats could quickly produce bipartisan support for tougher enforcement efforts by holding the GOP to its own campaign rhetoric.

The enforcement problem is real. Various federal law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco, the Customs Service, and the Coast Guard, independently work with international, state and local law enforcement to identify and investigate gun related criminal activities through multi-jurisdictional task forces, targeted training, technical assistance, information sharing and other investigative programs. But the fractured jurisdictional boundaries of each agency coupled with the lack of an identified lead entity empowered with the requisite authority limits greater, more efficient coordination among the various federal resources.

Better enforcement clearly pays dividends. Recent reductions in violent crime in Baltimore, MD; Richmond, VA; Rochester, NY and Bridgeport, CT, prove that when a jurisdiction devotes substantial resources to arresting and prosecuting those who illegally possess and use guns, violent crime -- particularly homicides -- can be prevented. These results shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. Gun rights advocates and gun control supporters have long touted enforcement efforts such as Richmond, Virginia's project EXILE as proof that aggressive enforcement of existing laws is effective in preventing gun related crime and violence.

Last year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Project EXILE Act, which would have provided $100 million over five years to states that sentence criminals who use or carry a firearm during a violent crime or serious drug trafficking offenses to at least five years in prison without parole. (The bill did not receive action in the Senate before the end of the last Congress.) Additionally, the Clinton Administration in its Fiscal Year 2000 budget proposed $280 million for gun law enforcement, including 500 new ATF agents, and additional law enforcement and prosecutorial resources to enhance local efforts to arrest and prosecute gun-toting criminals.

The successes achieved in Baltimore, Richmond, Rochester, and Bridgeport come at a time when recent national crime statistics suggest that after eight straight years of record-setting improvement, the nation's efforts to prevent crime may be stalling. During the first half of 2000, serious crime -- which dropped as much as 6 percent or 7 percent a year through much of the 1990s -- declined only a scant 0.3 percent, with actual increases in rapes and assaults. In a number of cities (such as Los Angeles, CA; Jacksonville, FL; and Dallas, TX) instances of violent crime -- particularly homicides--increased dramatically. These disturbing numbers should serve as a warning that if the Bush Administration and the 107th Congress ignore the threat posed by gun related crime and violence, the progress of the last eight years may be lost.

Building upon what works, Congress and the White House should make it a priority to implement a national crime gun enforcement initiative that supports local efforts to target for arrest and prosecution those who illegally sell guns and those who use guns to commit crime. One simple but galvanizing step would be to create a "Gun Czar" -- a Cabinet-level position within the White House, similar to the Drug Czar who supervises the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) and prepares a yearly, comprehensive national drug strategy. Additionally, the federal government should make it a priority for ATF agents to work with local law enforcement to develop and implement aggressive, local, anti-gun crime strategies and to support the tracing of every gun recovered or seized by a state or local law enforcement agency, sharing this critical data with local authorities for investigative purposes. U.S. Justice Department attorneys should also make it a priority to prosecute those who violate federal gun laws. Finally, the federal government through ATF should establish a grant program that provides state and local governments the resources to:

  1. Develop comprehensive local gun-crime enforcement strategies;
  2. Acquire information and communication technologies that support data on gun enforcement efforts;
  3. Acquire technologies that support ballistics testing;
  4. Offset the cost overtime for police officers, probation and parole agents, and prosecutors who are involved in efforts to arrest and prosecute criminals who use guns to commit crimes;
  5. Support aggressive, locally based, public education campaigns that inform potential violators of the penalties for illegal possession and use of guns (as occurred in Project EXILE).

This is a feasible strategy for coordinating the resources of the federal government and focusing attention and resources on a national effort to reduce gun violence through enforcement of existing gun laws. Moreover, it would circumvent the gridlocked debate between those who want greatly enhanced gun control laws and those who view any gun control effort as an infringement of a basic constitutional right.

At the moment, both sides can and should agree on more aggressive enforcement of the laws on the books. The time is ripe to exploit that common ground and get serious about targeting gun violence with the weapons we already have.

John D. Cohen is the director of the Progressive Policy Institute's Community Crime Fighting Project.

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