Mayors Set Their Sights on Rising Gun Violence

City leaders turn to new task force, high-tech innovations to fight spread of guns.

The nation's mayors are taking aim at guns.

Fed up with escalating gun violence even as crime rates decline, they are using new tactics in an attempt to stem gun violence and keep firearms out of the hands of children and criminals.

Some are threatening to file lawsuits. Others are targeting guns by putting more resources into police anti-weapons units. And, through much of this summer, a task force will try to make it tougher for criminals and kids to get access to weapons. They will talk about everything from "smart guns," which fire only when held by the owner, to ways to cut down on "straw men," who buy guns for felons.

"Mayors are very concerned and are trying to find ways to fight back," says Paul Helmke, mayor of Fort Wayne, Ind., and the president of the US Conference of Mayors. "We're looking for anything that might make a difference, since we are the ones who see the victims of drive-by shootings, gang violence, accidents, kids in school."

The task force

The most immediate effort is the task force, which is supported by the gun lobby and had its first meeting June 8 in Philadelphia - during the National Rifle Association's annual meeting. Again early next week, some of the participants will make a presentation in Reno, Nev., at the annual meeting of the US Conference of Mayors.

"This is something that should have been done many years ago," says Richard Feldman, executive director of the Atlanta-based American Shooting Sports Council, the lobbying group for gun manufacturers.

The impetus for the effort is Philadelphia Mayor Edward Rendell, who has threatened to sue gun manufacturers for the city's expenses in dealing with shootings. "We have used the possibility of a lawsuit to begin a dialogue," he says.

Mayor Rendell hopes to convince the gun persuade to support legislation that would limit purchases to one gun per month, end the production of armor-piercing bullets, and work on technology that would make it harder for guns to be used inappropriately.

For example, Colt is currently testing guns that use a personalized chip, which electronically recognizes the owner. Rendell would like to see these so-called "smart guns" used in his police force. He says 30 percent of the police officers who get shot in his city are shot with their own guns as they wrestle with assailants.

"The beauty of a personalized gun is that when an assailant tries to fire the gun, it doesn't work," he says, adding, "Think about what it would mean if we did that for all the guns in America - it would stop straw purchasers from buying 15 guns and would stop depressed kids from taking their daddy's guns out of the closet and going down to the schoolyard."

Working out the bugs

But there are still bugs to be worked out, says Mr. Feldman. For instance, some of the guns may not work if the police officer is wearing a glove. Yet Feldman says he can envision the guns being used in prisons, where authorities want to have tight control over firearms.

At first, cost may be a factor in how widely this technology is used. "They will cost about $300 to $700 per gun - or more than the the gun itself," says Feldman.

But proponents note that auto companies used to complain about the expense of air bags. "Now they are putting in air bags that are not required by law," says Rendell. At any rate, he says he would like to see cities get more involved in the high-tech effort, perhaps contributing some research and development money.

As for the task force, he hopes it will begin to get down to business this July. By Labor Day, he expects to know whether it's making any progress. If there isn't any by the end of the year, he says he'll file a lawsuit.

The idea of suing the gun companies first came from David Kairys, a law professor at Temple University Law School, in 1996. "Part of the problem is that the legislatures have not investigated the hand-gun industry," he says. One area for research, he adds, is the high level of multiple-gun purchases: "What possible legitimate use does someone have for buying five small, cheap, high-muzzle-velocity crime guns?"

Mr. Kairys helped the city establish its legal theories, which include product liability, criminal nuisance, and deceptive advertising. "It's a developing field of the law," says Rendell, who compares the suits to the early lawsuits filed against the tobacco industry.

The industry bristles at the comparison. "The biggest distinction between us and tobacco is that when you use tobacco as intended to be used by the manufacturer, it is harmful to the user," says Feldman.

At any rate, the tobacco cases are prompting other cities to look more closely at such lawsuits. Recently, Chicago said it might consider a lawsuit.

Missing the point?

Feldman believes the lawsuits miss out on the real problem: less-than-diligent law enforcement and lax attempts to corral "straw men" who buy the guns for criminals. He says cities that have cracked down hard on weapons-carrying criminals have had a much greater success at reducing crime.

That seems to be case in New York, where Police Commissioner Howard Safir has embarked on a program to reduce the number of guns on the streets. Since 1996, he has quadrupled the number of officers in the Street Crimes Unit. The officers, in plainclothes, target individuals who might be carrying guns. Although the unit only represents 1.5 percent of the police force, it accounts for 40 percent of guns seized. Shooting incidents are down 13 percent during the past year and 39 percent during the past two years.

The arrests are sending a message, says Mr. Safir, who adds that criminals have told the police that they stash their weapons until they are ready to commit a crime. "When they were carrying their weapons around with them, there were lots of crimes of opportunity," says Safir. One sign the program may be working: Gun arrests are dropping.

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