Targeting guns to reduce violent crime
A new law enforcement strategy takes hold under the radar of the gun control debate: Targeting guns and their users is seen as surest way to reduce violent crime
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Bealefeld's strategy is multipronged: He has created a gun-trace task force, coordinated more closely with parole officers, and has worked with city and court officials to develop a gun offender registry – one of the first in the country – that tracks his "bad guys" much the way sex offender registries do.Skip to next paragraph
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For example, on Dec. 17, police got a tip that a man named Marcus Ellis was involved in a narcotics deal. After checking with parole and probation officers, the police realized that not only was Ellis on probation for recent drug offenses, but he also had a history of handgun violations.
They quickly got a search warrant, and found that Ellis was carrying a semiautomatic 9mm handgun. These sorts of arrests happen regularly, Bealefeld says.
Although Baltimore has made some of the boldest moves to target illegal guns, and is unique in the extent of its gun crimes – during the past decade, the number of nonfatal shootings has neared 1,000 a year in this city of 600,000 – it is not alone in the way that the focus of law enforcement has shifted.
Though national rates of robbery, murder, and rape have fallen since the 1990s, gun violence in inner cities has persisted or increased. Criminologists at Northeastern University in Boston, Mass., for instance, released a study in early 2009 showing that the number of young black men and teenagers who either killed or were killed in gun crimes has increased 40 percent since 2000.
To fight this trend, police departments across the country have put more resources into gun units, prioritized gun arrests, and have worked with federal prosecutors to take gun cases into federal court. City leaders have also joined the effort; in just the three years since New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino created Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the active group has grown from 13 members to more than 450. Also, in some large cities, health departments have increasingly supported peer-to-peer antigun efforts, many modeled on the successful Ceasefire programs in Chicago and Boston, where former gang members help mediate conflicts before anyone resolves them with a gun.
"There is a variation in how [different] cities and departments have approached the problem of firearms," says Richard Rosenfeld, professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. "There is a variation when it comes to strategy. But across the country, there has certainly been a heightened focus on reducing firearm crime. And privately, many will say that the drug war has been ineffective and a waste of public resources."
It is not as if any police department is giving up fighting drug crime, however. According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, drug-related arrests continue to rise. In 2007, there were more than 1.8 million drug-related arrests – most for drug possession – compared with 1980, when the number was less than 600,000. Even in police departments such as Baltimore's, where guns are the explicit priority, it will probably take years before there is a full institutional adjustment, criminal justice scholars say.
"I think that there is a shift," says Daniel Webster, the head of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Gun Policy and Research. "I think it can be shifted more.… I see more big-city departments putting greater resources to the gun effort, but you don't change institutions overnight.