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Cities Under Fire

Cities Under Fire

Cities Under Fire

30,000 Americans die every year from gun violence. How do we prevent this carnage? First, view illegal guns as pollution. Then, go to the source.

By Geoff Brown

In 2005, an unassuming outdoors store in West Milwaukee, Wisconsin, earned the distinction of being the top source of crime guns in the U.S. The store's gray building lies in a part of town occupied by warehouses and sheds, just outside the city limits. A small sign out front read "Badger Outdoors" in blue letters, complete with a little blue hunter silhouette; another sign announced gun and ammo specials.

How did Badger Outdoors earn its dubious honor from federal authorities? Because 537 guns recovered by police in Milwaukee and other parts of the country were traced by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) to sales made there. No other gun store in America had more than 500 of their guns recovered by police. Of the 537 guns traced to Badger Outdoors in 2005, 38 percent of them were recovered by police less than a year after they were sold.

One out of every four guns seized by Milwaukee police officers in 2005 was later traced back to Badger Outdoors. (Milwaukee's police department traces every recovered crime gun to its source. This may be one reason that so many of the guns Badger sells are later traced to crime, but dozens of cities around the U.S. have the same tracing policy, many of which trace far more crime guns.)

There was another disturbing trend in 2005. Homicide rates in many American cities were up again after a relatively calm 2004. Milwaukee was among those with a deadly increase: This mid-sized Midwestern city of some 580,000 citizens had 88 homicides in 2004, but in 2005 its homicide rate rose by 38 percent, to 122. Among those killed were Sasha Carter, a 19-year-old woman shot by men who wanted the rims on her car, and Montrise Conley, a 15-year-old boy shot by a bicyclist who fired into the van in which Conley was riding.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett was determined to do something about the surge in murders in his city. "Unlike most East Coast cities, most of the crime guns here are home-grown," says Terry Perry, manager of the city of Milwaukee's Office of Violence Prevention. "We get some from Illinois, Indiana and Mississippi, but really, they're primarily from Badger." What's surprising is that the number of crime guns traced back to Badger wasn't told to Milwaukee by the ATF: "The news of their status as the number one crime gun store actually came from [the discovery process] in a federal suit involving a gun store in California," says Perry.

Mayor Barrett, Perry and other officials were convinced that if they could get Badger to change the way it did business, more Milwaukeeans would be alive at the end of 2006. After all, back in 1999, when Badger agreed to stop selling Saturday night specials, the number of these new, low-quality handguns on Milwaukee's streets dropped by a staggering 71 percent. That revelation, as well as other crucial statistics, came from a 2006 article published in the Journal of Urban Health by researchers from the Bloomberg School's Center for Gun Policy and Research. The article's findings "led to our direct involvement with local officials in Milwaukee," explains Center co-director Daniel Webster, ScD '91, MPH. "It also led to a closer examination of ATF trace data that revealed that the reductions in trafficking following Badger's move away from cheap, concealable guns had evaporated."

Mayor Barrett decided to take action. He invited the owners of Badger Outdoors, Mick Beatovic and Wally Allan, to a meeting in his office in Milwaukee's City Hall—a meeting that would include Milwaukee's police chief and the city's district attorney, as well as Perry and other officials.

The meeting was set for Tuesday, May 30, 2006, just after Memorial Day. That beginning-of-summer weekend turned out to be no holiday in Milwaukee: There were 28 shootings, including four deaths, making it one of the most violent stretches in the city's history. "It was complete chaos that weekend," Perry recalls—chaos that could be traced, in part, right back to that plain gray building in West Milwaukee.

WHEN A COMMUNITY knows that its water and land are being poisoned by effluent from a chemical factory, or its air is being rendered foul by smokestacks, it goes after those polluters to protect the health of its people. The approach taken by the epidemiologists, public health experts and lawyers at the Center for Gun Policy and Research is the same: "Where are these guns coming from? It's not like they spontaneously generated in the forest—'Oh look, a baby gun!'" says Stephen Teret, JD, MPH '79. "The loading docks of the gun manufacturers are the point sources of this pollution." Adds Teret, who founded the Center in 1995 and is now an associate dean at the Bloomberg School, "There are some segments of the American population where the number one cause of death is gunfire. That's a major public health problem."

Indeed, more than 30,000 Americans die through gun violence every year, be it from suicide, homicide or accident. In 2006, another 71,000 people were wounded.

Gun violence "is not just some political issue, it's a public health issue," notes Daniel Webster, an associate professor of Health Policy and Management (HPM). "It can, and should, be addressed as such. We look at the problem as if it were an infectious disease, or a point source of pollution."

But because there's an easily available consumer product at the heart of this threat to public health, the Center has approached its research with an eye toward product safety as well. "The Center is a combination of different disciplines," explains HPM associate professor Jon Vernick, JD, MPH '94, the Center's other co-director. "Daniel focuses on the epidemiological aspects, and that's complemented by the abilities of Stephen [Teret] and I, who are lawyers with concentrations in public health." Other faculty members, including HPM assistant professor Shannon Frattaroli, PhD '99, MPH '94, and research associate Katherine Vittes, PhD, MPH, are experts in research and policy.

The strategies recommended by the Center employ a combination of science, litigation and legislation. "The law can be an enormously powerful tool, in concert with other tools," says Teret.

This has meant working with local and state officials and legislators to develop the kinds of safety bills that protect Americans from harm at the barrel of a gun, including one of the first statewide bans on Saturday night specials (passed in Maryland in 1988) and the addition of mandatory child-safety locks or similar devices to all new gun sales, a law many states have adopted. Center faculty have worked with officials from states all across the country, including those with the most strenuous gun safety laws: California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts and New Jersey (see "Building a Safer Gun").

Still, the Center is an evidence-based research effort, not an advocacy group; its faculty are not attempting to overturn the constitutional right to bear arms. "We're an academic institution that can't exist by selling snake oil," says Webster. "We're not out raising money for some political cause."

When a community knows that its land is being poisoned by a chemical factory, it goes after the polluters. Epidemiologists, lawyers and policy wonks are taking the same approach to illegal firearms. "Where are these guns coming from? It's not like they spontaneously generated in the forest—'Oh look, a baby gun!'" says Stephen Teret.

Given the recent 5-4 Supreme Court ruling that overturned the District of Columbia's ban on handguns (see "The State of the Second Amendment"), understanding what types of firearms legislation will and won't survive a constitutional challenge is more important that ever. "Our knowledge of public health law allows the Center's work to be consistent with the Second Amendment," says Vernick. "It's not about taking guns away. It's about gun violence prevention."

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