Attack city gun violence at source

July 19, 2002|By Daniel W. Webster and Nancy Lord Lewin

GUN VIOLENCE traditionally has been regarded as the responsibility of the criminal justice system. But it is also an important public health problem that can be most effectively fought by combining public health strategies with criminal justice efforts.

An example of such an approach is an innovative strategy to reduce gun violence recently spearheaded by Baltimore City Health Commissioner Peter L. Beilenson and Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris.

The police set up stings to deter illegal sales of handgun ammunition to underage youths. Dr. Beilenson, acting as he would in any situation affecting public health, such as a restaurant serving unsafe food, shut down a west-side hardware store caught selling ammunition illegally to youths. To reopen, the store had to prevent illegal sales or stop selling ammunition.

We want to keep handguns from underage youths, and guns don't work without bullets. In the past, public health and law enforcement have worked together using similar tactics to reduce alcohol and tobacco sales to youths. The same should be done to reduce sales of handguns and ammunition to youths in a city where half of all teen deaths are from shootings.

For too long, we have accepted that criminals and youths will have easy access to guns and ammunition as an unfortunate yet unavoidable fact of life in Baltimore. Collaboration between the city's police and health departments is an important first step to cast off this defeatist attitude and adopt strategies to stop the flow of illegal guns into the city.

Just as environmental contaminants are best abated by treating their source, Baltimore cannot make significant and sustained reductions in gun violence without targeting its sources.

Maryland has several laws to aid efforts to reduce illegal gun sales, including limits on handgun purchases to one per person per month, a ban on "junk guns" and criminal background check requirements for all gun sales. Our research suggests that these laws have helped. But deterring illegal gun sales would be much easier and more effective if we remedied some obvious weaknesses in our laws.

Baltimore police recover thousands of guns from criminals and youths each year. Yet rarely is anyone arrested for illegally selling these guns. Why?

An important reason is that police and prosecutors have tended to focus on crimes with the stiffest penalties, and people convicted of illegally selling guns in Baltimore rarely go to jail. Yet someone convicted of selling a small amount of crack can be imprisoned for many years. Illegal guns are as much of a threat to public safety as illegal drugs.

Maryland law prohibits the use of evidence gathered in undercover stings with hidden recording devices to prosecute people for illegally selling guns. Such evidence is commonly used to convict drug dealers and other criminals.

Current state law entrusts gun dealers with verifying the identification of people applying to buy a handgun. But a federal government study found that gun dealers virtually never catch people when they use a fake ID to purchase a handgun. Maryland should follow the way of 14 other states and require handgun purchasers to apply for permits at a law enforcement agency whose main concern is public safety rather than making sales.

Finally, although Baltimore's homicide rate is nine times higher than the rest of the state's, state law prohibits the city from enacting gun laws that are more restrictive than the state's unless the local law is tailored specifically to protect minors.

City officials used this exception in the law to launch its attack on illegal ammunition sales to youths. But the city could do so much more to combat illegal guns if it were not constrained by this unfair and illogical law.

Daniel Webster is co-director and Nancy Lord Lewin is communications director for the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.

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