Saturday, February 9, 2013

How House Democrats Plan To Use Local Power To Stop Gun Violence – And How To Do It Better

On Thursday afternoon, the House Democratic Gun Violence Prevention Task Force released a framework document laying out fifteen proposals for gun violence prevention legislation. It’s a good document, reaching beyond the mainstay proposals like an assault weapon bans to less heralded, but equally important issues like restrictions on the federal government’s ability to help state and local police track local guns. But the most unique proposals in the framework are also some of the ones most in need of improvement: its recommendations for supporting local efforts against gun violence.

Other recent gun violence proposals (like those from President Obama and Sen. Dianne Feinstein [D-CA]) have focused primarily on increased direct federal legislation. The Task Force proposal also contains significant federal proposals, but amps up the focus on how the federal government can support innovative state and local initiatives to reduce gun violence. It’s a smart approach — NRA-sponsored legislation limits both local ability to regulate guns and efforts to research their effects, but what evidence we have suggests state and local efforts really can make a dent in gun violence. A study of 54 cities, for example, found that ones with tighter and better enforced gun laws substantially reduced the diversion of guns to criminals.

The Task Force’s approach to local enforcement involves highlighting smart local initiatives and supporting them. For example:

1. Comprehensive, public health youth gun violence initiatives. The Task Force rejects “tough on crime” approaches to youth violence that involve the mass incarceration of kids in favor of “comprehensive, evidence-based prevention and intervention programs directed toward at-risk youth” created by “representatives from local law enforcement, schools, court services, social services, health and mental health services, businesses, and other community organizations.” This appears to be a reference to the “public health” gun violence reduction approach enacted in, among other places, Boston and Minneapolis, which has saved hundreds of lives that might have been claimed by gunfire.

2. Criminal firearm disposal. “Over time, gun owners may lose their eligibility to possess a weapon under state or federal law, often because of criminal activity or mental health issues. Innovative programs designed to facilitate the disposal of firearms held by prohibited persons can prevent gun violence,” the Task Force notes. It goes on to suggest that “the federal government should encourage states to create and utilize programs that allow local law enforcement to assist gun owners who do not have the legal capacity to own them, in the sale or transfer of their illegal firearms.”

3. Community-level gun reduction. The Task Force recommends that “Congress should take measures to encourage state and local governments to use federal funds” to support “various strategies to better engage local communities in removing illegal or unused guns from their neighborhoods, such as illegal gun tip hotlines and voluntary gun buyback programs administered by municipalities or local law enforcement.” This sort of clarity (it even goes on to name specific federal funds that could be used for this purpose) could improve the Task Force’s other suggestions for local law enforcement.

Unfortunately, not all of these proposals for improved local gun action are accompanied by proposals for how the federal government can actually accomplish those ends ends. While the second of the above suggestions does, neither the first nor the third clarifies how, exactly, it plans to use federal law to encourage states, cities, and counties to adopt the outlined approach. Expressing support in the abstract is nice, but absent some kind of federal program providing financial or some other sort of assistance to locales, it’s won’t do very much.

Lack of concrete action for its local support plans isn’t the only problem in the recommendations — for example, its section on “increased prosecutions of persons who violate federal firearms law” focuses more on gun purchasers rather than the real problem, crooked gun dealers willing to sell to criminals. But overall, the proposals are excellent steps in the right direction.

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