- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 27, 2000

''Pizza" is a 24-year-old who runs with the "D ware" gang. He was recently arrested on firearms charges after shooting a young man and having a compatriot videotape the incident.
Pizza was arrested nine times as a juvenile on 16 charges including nine felonies. At age 17, he was waived to criminal court on a number of charges including three attempt murder charges. Since that time he has 19 additional arrests including seven violent offenses and five handgun convictions. At the time of his most recent arrest a search of his residence uncovered a large amount of cocaine and $18,000 cash.
Last August, Cory Yates and Donald Webber were driving around barhopping. In a scene that could have been out of the movie "Pulp Fiction," Mr. Webber was allegedly playing with his 9-millimeter handgun pointing it at his friend when he mistakenly fired. Mr. Yates is dead and Mr. Webber faces charges of reckless homicide.
These scenes are, of course, too often tragically repeated across the country. Several of President Clinton's recent proposals for enforcing gun laws hold promise for reducing the number of such incidents. Specifically, the president has recommended hiring more federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) agents to investigate firearms crimes and illegal gun trafficking and more local, state, and federal prosecutors to prosecute gun offenders.
The hope of the proposal is twofold and can be considered in the context of the above cases. In the first instance one can only ask why Pizza, with five prior handgun convictions and numerous other charges, was walking the streets free to continue to shoot or to be shot? Effective enforcement of current laws could have prevented the most recent crime. In the second case, the intent is to persuade individuals not to be carrying firearms during a drinking spree and to convince potential offenders there are consequences for illegal possession and use.
The dilemma in crafting effective laws toward gun crime is that while there are more than 230 million guns and an estimated 59 million gun owners in the United States, estimates are that as much as 99.9 percent of gun-carrying does not result in violent crime. How do we get at the rare uses of guns that produce such deadly consequences?
The answer seems to be through focusing on illegal possession and use of firearms. Justice Department studies in Boston, Indianapolis, and Minneapolis suggest why this is the case. In Boston and Indianapolis, two-thirds to three-quarters of victims and suspects had prior criminal records. In all three cities, victims and suspects with prior records averaged 7 to 12 prior arrests. Given that federal law prohibits convicted felons from possessing firearms, effective enforcement of these laws becomes a tool for incapacitating those offenders who continue to shoot and deterring gun carrying by other felons.
The promise of these steps is suggested in the experience of cities like Boston, New York and Richmond that have experienced significant declines in violent crime. Project Exile in Richmond has involved a commitment to prosecute all firearms offenses in federal court. With its harsh sentences, limits on bail, and incarceration in distant federal facilities, Richmond has seemingly deterred illegal gun-carrying and witnessed a 50 percent reduction in homicides. In Boston, teams of local, state and federal law enforcement officials have responded to homicides and shootings with aggressive tactics focused at gang members thought to be involved in firearms violence. The results have included a virtual end to youth homicides and overall reductions in annual levels of homicides from peaks around 150 to approximately 30.
Similarly, in New York the police department began to focus on illegal guns in the early 1990s. From 1993 to 1998, arrests increased more than 50 percent and the Street Crimes Unit made 9,500 arrests with 2,500 arrests for illegal possession of firearms. Gun homicides have dropped a dramatic 75 percent since that time. Indianapolis police who rode with New York's Street Crimes unit tell of youths standing on corners and pulling up their shirts to show that indeed they were not carrying firearms.
Like other communities, Indianapolis has borrowed from these cities by targeted enforcement at violent crime hot spots and increased local-federal cooperation in prosecution and in monitoring of probationers and parolees. The results have been impressive as evidenced in 40 percent declines in gun assaults in targeted neighborhoods and more than a 20 percent decrease in homicides following a string of record-setting years.
Along with the announcement of the new proposals, the attorney general presented evidence of increased federal prosecution during 1999. This is consistent with Miss Reno's call to U.S. Attorneys to develop anti-firearms violence plans. These all seem like steps in the right direction.
The increased arrest, prosecution, and incarceration of gun offenders initiated in these jurisdictions and promised through the president's call for more ATF agents and prosecutors is not the goal of these actions. Rather, these are tools to change the norms on the streets. Although those who continue to shoot must be incapacitated, the real goal is to convince other potential offenders not to illegally carry guns. The evidence in Boston and New York suggests behavior can change as prior felons or youths realize they face harsh punishments if they do illegally carry their guns. With such drastically decreased levels of gun violence, potential offenders may also realize the streets have changed and that they need not be armed for protection or for bragging rights.

Edmund F. McGarrell is director of the Crime Control Policy Center at the Indianapolis-based Hudson Institute and chair of the Department of Criminal Justice at Indiana University.

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