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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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It's already a crime for a convicted felon to have a gun, so further regulation is overkill, reason those who oppose gun controls.

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The NRA has urged its members to put pressure on politicians to leave the group.

For its part, Mayors Against Illegal Guns insists it supports Second Amendment rights. But the strident response from the gun lobby discourages national politicians from advocating changes to gun laws, say those working for more gun regulation.

"It's been a toxic issue," says John Feinblatt, Mayor Bloomberg's criminal justice coordinator. "The Democrats don't want to touch it because they blame their losses in '94 on it. It's become a political hot potato. But the mayors know this isn't about politics. This is about people's lives."

For now, says Robyn Thomas, executive director of the Legal Community Against Violence, the movement against illegal guns is likely to have most success on a local level.

"There is more political traction now in cities," she says. "That's where we're seeing the change."

still, as baltimore shows, this change can be significant. Since Bealefeld took the commissioner job two years ago, with the explicit goal of targeting gun crimes, homicide numbers in the city have dropped to record lows. The 234 murders in the city in 2008 was the lowest annual total in two decades; by Dec. 29, 2009, the city had 235, indicating a sustained trend rather than – as usually happens in Baltimore – a one-year dip.

Nonfatal shooting numbers have also dropped. In the early 2000s there were close to 1,000 nonfatal shootings in Baltimore annually; by Dec. 29 of 2009 there were 447 – down 23 percent from last year. And over the past two years, the department has seized 5,000 illegal guns – a number that equals 10 percent of the guns sold legally in Maryland, but only a fraction of the illegal firearms police believe are in the city. (In New York, a city with a population more than 10 times that of Baltimore, police only confiscated about twice that number.)

Other cities engaging in the new focus also show progress.

Boston, for instance, which put a gun buy-back program into effect in 2006 after a spike in gun violence, has seen a decrease in nonfatal shootings – 323 in 2006, 273 in 2007, 274 in 2008, and just 191 as of Dec. 13, 2009. In New York, after years of refocused enforcement, police are finding fewer illegal guns on the street – 7,059 in 2006 and 5,913 in 2007, for example. "I am just so convinced, and so animated, about this notion of going after gun violence," Bealefeld says. "Because we've been debating about the efficacy of drug enforcement, and whether we should legalize drugs, or what we should do about drugs, blah blah blah blah blah drugs forever. You can't get five people to agree on it. But I could get 500, I could get 5,000, I could get 500,000 to agree that one guy with a gun constitutes a danger to them. I can." •