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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"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."Skip to next paragraph
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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.
"In my mind, the direction they should be heading is [toward] devoting fewer resources to disrupting illegal drug markets and more resources to disrupting illegal gun markets. They've been trying to fight this drug war for eons and they really haven't been effective.... Sometimes it is even counterproductive – we know that drug markets are most violent when they are destabilized."
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Taking aim at gun crime has its roots in the early 1990s, when police departments and city governments started experimenting with new ways of fighting the crack cocaine wars that had propelled homicide numbers to record highs, says Hubert Williams, president of the Police Foundation. Gun buy-back programs, background checks, and, in some cities, out-and-out handgun bans were some of the measures put in place to get a handle on growing urban violence.
One well-known program, which, unlike many of the other efforts, had the support of the National Rifle Association (NRA), was "Project Exile" in Richmond, Va. Here, federal and local law enforcement teamed together to literally exile convicted gun offenders from the region; because of the federal system's stricter sentencing laws and its expansive federal prison network, someone convicted of illegal gun possession not only got more time, but often served it hundreds of miles away from friends and family.