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Cities Under Fire

Cities Under Fire

Cities Under Fire (continued)

By Geoff Brown

Those initial 15 mayors formed Mayors Against Illegal Guns (MAIG); today, some 320 mayors belong to the group, and work to stop the flow of illegal guns into their cities through proactive, aggressive policies and the canny study of numbers and information. "The MAIG movement got more cities thinking that they can take control over illegal gun trafficking," says Webster. "The mayors, and particularly Mayor Bloomberg, were frustrated about the fact that the rest of the country was not really doing what they should be doing, in terms of enforcement. Congress is very far from the problem. They're rarely held accountable for blood in the streets."

"Our ultimate goal is to see our research used by policymakers to reduce the unacceptable toll of gun violence in the U.S. and worldwide." —Jon Vernick

Webster, Vernick and Teret developed a seven-page guide called "How Cities Can Combat Illegal Guns and Gun Violence." It detailed effective strategies (used by cities like Chicago and Detroit, for example), such as undercover stings and lawsuits against gun dealers, and examined how those strategies had worked.

New York officials, operating outside the auspices of MAIG, tracked down which gun stores in other states were selling guns that were ending up in the Big Apple, then conducted their own sting operations against those stores. Then they went on to sue those gun stores' owners. Webster gave expert testimony in the lawsuits the city brought, providing data that showed the stores enabled firearms to get into the hands of criminals because of the way the stores sold guns. "The data stuck out like a sore thumb," says Feinblatt.

Some 26 stores in states such as Pennsylvania, Virginia and South Carolina eventually settled out of court; they are now monitored by a court appointed special master from New York.

  • 42 million Number of U.S. households with at least one gun
  • 283 million Number of guns in the U.S.
  • 40 Decrease in number of homicides per year, 1990-1999, after a 1990 law in Maryland banned the sale of cheap "Saturday night special" handguns
  • 84 Average number of daily gun-related deaths in the U.S.
  • 55.4 Percent of U.S. gun deaths that are suicides
  • 71,000 Number of Americans wounded by gun violence in 2006
  • 500 Percent increase in chance of the partner's death if a domestic abuser owns a gun

Getting more than two dozen gun stores to settle with New York was a good first step. The next, taken by MAIG, was convincing Wal-Mart, the largest gun retailer in the U.S., to agree to follow a voluntary code of conduct written by MAIG. This code laid out a much more deliberate and diligent gun sales policy, aimed at preventing legally sold guns from ending up in illegal hands: It states that participating retailers will, among other practices, use video to record all transactions, maintain good records of sales and purchases, and not sell firearms without obtaining background check results.

In 2007, when representatives from MAIG traveled to the Arkansas headquarters of Wal-Mart to discuss the code, the group's clout, research and success with the other gun sellers helped get the retail behemoth to agree to adopt the guidelines.

BACK IN MILWAUKEE following the city's deadly 2006 Memorial Day weekend, Mayor Barrett faced Badger Outdoors' owners. The problem for the mayor and police officials wasn't locating the source of crime guns—the guns were known to be coming from Badger. The store wasn't blatantly breaking any laws: The sales were being made on the books, meaning there was appropriate paperwork showing the guns had been sold, although no one knew for sure whether they were all legal sales. Still, Mayor Barrett knew from the inaugural meeting of MAIG (held just a month earlier) that he could get Badger to change the way it sold guns.

Webster had recommended increasing scrutiny of Badger, and with the resulting intelligence in hand—and data from the Center for Gun Policy and Research, along with ATF and Milwaukee police records—Mayor Barrett showed Badger's owners what their store's guns were doing to the city.

"The message was very clear," recalls Perry. "Badger had again been identified as the number one purveyor of crime guns. And over the weekend of Memorial Day, 28 persons were shot in the city. There was no time to wait."

Badger's owners sat and listened to what Barrett and the others had to say. "The tone of the meeting was intense but cordial," Perry says. And, somewhat surprisingly, when city officials were done speaking, the store's owners agreed to make changes.

"Badger didn't want to be viewed as bad guys," says Perry. "They felt that they were responsible businessmen and didn't like the negative publicity. Mick [Beatovic] told me many times that he wanted Milwaukee to be a safe city, and in no way did he want Badger to be considered part of a crime problem."

The first step Beatovic and Badger Outdoors took was paying to have a cellular phone jammer installed in the store. This helped prevent a popular kind of "straw purchase," suspected to be a significant part of the store's business. In this transaction, a legal purchaser would take photos on a cell phone, send them to a person prohibited from buying a gun such as a convicted felon, and get text instructions about which gun to buy. Straw purchases get around the law in this way: If a legally eligible person buys a firearm and that firearm ends up being used in a crime by a person legally prohibited from possessing a gun, it's still up to the authorities and courts to prove that the gun's legal buyer somehow illegally transferred the firearm to the banned person. Beatovic also started searching state court records—even though he was not obligated to do so—"if he felt 'uncomfortable' about the customer," Perry says.

Another success was a high-tech surveillance system the store installed (again, at its expense) to track customers who might be making straw purchases; Mayor Barrett, the district attorney and Perry even spent some time in the control room, watching how people tried to legally buy a gun for someone for whom possession of a firearm was a crime.

Milwaukee officials believe these philosophical and policy changes—which came about in large part because of the data and studies conducted by the Center for Gun Policy and Research—reduced the number of guns sold by Badger that ended up being used in crimes, although final statistics are still being reviewed. One favorable indicator: The city's final homicide tally for 2007 was 105, two more than in 2006, but down from 2005's high of 122. And the number of nonfatal firearm injuries declined by almost 78 percent from 2006 to 2007.

The Milwaukee results offer encouragement for Center faculty, but they realize that larger victories are still years away. "Our ultimate goal is to see our research used by policymakers to reduce the unacceptable toll of gun violence in the U.S. and worldwide," says Vernick.

Another significant challenge lies in changing how Americans perceive, protect and view firearms. "People have a hard time imagining a world in which guns are less prolific," says Daniel Webster. "We just think of this level of guns as normal. When we look at each of the tragedies, like Virginia Tech and Columbine, we say, 'What was going on with that guy?' And we don't necessarily think about the fact that there are people like that all over the world, and incidents like this don't happen in other parts of the world.

"The mission of the Center for Gun Policy and Research has never been limited to advancing our scientific understanding of gun violence," he says. "It's nice to see our work published in prestigious journals, but it can do far more good if we put it into the hands of people who can act on the research."

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