Members of Congress are so cowed by the power of the National Rifle Association that they can't hear a cry from US cities: "Please, help us get handguns off our streets." Congress has even tried to block cities from taking action against gunmakers.
The latest skirmish between Washington and the cities came last Thursday in a New York City courthouse. A federal judge ruled that the city can have access to gun-tracing information gathered by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Such information is critical in a lawsuit brought by New York City against gun manufacturers in its effort to control handguns.
The civil suit aims to hold gunmakers responsible for creating a public nuisance in how they sell their lethal wares. The data, such as the serial numbers, purchase records, and caliber of firearms, may help show that gunmakers and distributors can determine which of their dealers sell the guns used in crimes, and thus can be held culpable.
Such suits, which sprang up in the 1990s, have struck fear among gun manufacturers. The gunmakers decided to use the NRA's clout and pushed Congress in 2004 to pass a law that forbids the release to the public of federal data on gun tracing. When a judge said such data could be released in private suits, Congress acted again last year to prevent the data from being used in any suit. But the latest ruling further challenges the NRA and Congress.
NRA-controlled US lawmakers are so afraid of suits against the gun industry that they've even tried to tell all courts to dismiss them.
The city's suit is just one action being taken by New York. Last week, Mayor Michael Bloomberg hosted a meeting of 15 city mayors in a show of support against Washington's campaign to squelch the fight against guns. The National Summit on Illegal Guns called for Congress to roll back its recent anti-gun-control laws and help cities in such efforts as targeting those few gun dealers who regularly sell guns to criminals. (Five out of 6 guns used in a crime are obtained illegally.) Despite tough laws against guns in many cities and states, lax federal rules do not prevent the sale of handguns across state lines. The mayors hope to enlist other cities later this year in a national campaign for federal action.
"If the leadership won't come from Congress or from the White House, it will have to come from us," said Mayor Bloomberg at the mayors conference.
The mayors are not alone. More than 80 percent of police chiefs want tougher measures, such as mandatory trigger locks on new handguns, according to a recent survey.
With some 30,000 Americans killed each year by guns, Congress cannot just cower before the NRA and hinder efforts by cities to combat the sale of guns to criminals. City officials are the ones who almost daily deal with such shooting, and the results of such violence on city life. When they gather on this issue and plead for help, silence cannot be the answer.
Let the ATF join the cities in using key data on firearms to nab unscrupulous dealers and gun-toting criminals.