Philadelphia Mayor Bridges Gun-Control Divide
In unusual show of unity, gun foes and NRA back effort to crack down on illegal firearms
WASHINGTON — Efforts to regulate the way guns in America are purchased and stored come up against the obvious: The nation is awash in guns.
Even if all gun manufacturing were halted immediately, more than 200 million guns still exist in homes across the country.
In the face of that practical reality, and amid growing concern over firearm violence, gun advocates and gun foes - usually mortal enemies - are laying aside their long-standing animosity in a few experimental efforts to make communities safer.
"This is not an ideological struggle, it's a gritty attempt to reduce gun violence," says Philadelphia Mayor Edward Rendell, who is on the cutting edge of fostering such cooperation.
Mayor Rendell's proposal to create a metrowide zero-tolerance zone for illegal firearms has won praise from both the National Rifle Association (NRA) and Handgun Control Inc. The plan is modeled after a Richmond, Va., program that aggressively prosecutes firearm violations using federal statutes in addition to state and local ones. By using federal statutes, prosecutors on average have been winning five-year terms for gun-law violators. Serious offenders rarely get bail, and there is no reduction in sentence.
"Homicide by firearms is down almost 66 percent," Dave Schiller, an assistant US attorney in Richmond, says of the year-old program. In its first year, the program snared 363 guns. Of 251 people arrested, 191 were convicted. Previous felons, prohibited from possessing firearms, were the most common group of gun offenders. The second largest group was drug traffickers. The third was those possessing illegally modified weapons, particularly guns with serial numbers filed off.
Three cheers from NRA
The NRA is downright enthusiastic about Rendell's proposal for the City of Brotherly Love. "If we can get it off the ground and running in Philadelphia, with the right kind of attention, it's something everyone in America ought to look at," says NRA spokesman Bill Powers.
The White House supports the concept in principle, but it has not given Rendell a solid endorsement.
"What we support is more money for more agents to enforce gun laws, and more money for special prosecutors to try these cases," says White House spokesman Joe Lockhart. Rendell is expected to meet with senior White House staff next week to lobby for support.
The quest for solutions has been heightened by the spate of school shootings that began last fall. This week, President Clinton lent support to several proposals aimed at preventing youth access to firearms. Standing next to Suzann Wilson, who lost her daughter, Brittheny Varner, in the Jonesboro, Ark., shooting, Mr. Clinton extolled mandatory lock-up of all guns. In a breaking voice, Ms. Wilson pleaded for laws mandating locked storage of firearms: "To every gun owner in America I want to say please, please, for the sake of the children, lock up your guns."
Under proposed legislation, firearms owners would face criminal penalty if they fail to use trigger-lock devices or to put guns in locked storage. But it's unlikely a gun bill would clear Congress this session, especially given that, by and large, gun proponents do not support the idea on grounds that rapid access for home defense would be hampered.
But other moves this week won broader support, including new regulations mandating federally authorized gun dealers to post warning signs against selling handguns to minors.
More common ground
At the same time, Clinton pledged support for a pilot program that is backed by gun groups and gun opponents. Maryland, with the cooperation with the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, will trace and test the ballistics of all guns confiscated from crime scenes. The effort is aimed at halting gun trafficking and cutting gun violence in half within four years.
Despite several opportunities for traditional opponents to work together, compromise is anathema to some. Hard-liners on both sides feel that compromise can undermine their long-standing philosophical positions.
"We think the best approach is to take an almost uncompromising attitude toward regulation of the firearm industry," says Tom Diaz at the Violence Policy Center, an antigun organization in Washington. "Rushing to compromise on this is foolish."
Indeed, the NRA's Mr. Powers declined to speculate about other issues where compromise might be possible.
"That sort of discussion is not important to us. What is [important] is that we keep an eye on the ball," Powers says, keeping a firm focus exclusively on the Philadelphia project.
Ultimately, practical realities will catch up with both sides, some observers predict.
"There is a need for some common ground... and for a fairly holistic approach [in curbing gun violence]," says Robert Spitzer, author of "The Politics of Gun Control" and a political scientist at the State University of New York College in Cortland.
"That means the antigun-control groups should be prepared to accept some gun control, whereas the gun-control groups have to be prepared in exchange to grant that tens of millions of Americans own guns and that gun ownership has a long and honorable tradition in America," he says.