The Scourge of Illegal Guns

Last year, 10,177 people in the United States were killed by firearms, mostly in cities and urban areas.

The burden of gun violence has largely fallen to the big-city mayors, some of whom are taking steps to keep illegal firearms from entering their borders. Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City and Mayor Jerramiah Healy of Jersey City are among those who have moved most aggressively to combat gun trafficking even though their cities are in states with strict illegal gun laws.

It's difficult to obtain a permit to own a gun and even harder to legally carry a gun in New York and New Jersey, but that hasn't stopped the sale and use of illegal weapons. That's because guns laws are regulated by the individual states and weapons tend to enter the states with tough control laws from nearby states with weak laws.

The "straw man" method is the major way in which weapons move across state lines, law enforcement authorities say. Criminals purchase truckloads of firearms by enlisting a "straw man" -- someone without a criminal background to go to states like Pennsylvania, North Carolina, South Carolina or Georgia to purchase firearms from gun shops. The criminals then simply take to the interstate highways to bring these guns into states like New Jersey and New York to mark them up and resell them illegally on the black market.

New York's Bloomberg has set up out-of-state sting operations, with investigators posing as straw men. He then sued the 27 gun dealers in five states whose illegal practices were traced to guns used in crimes committed in New York City. Fourteen of the dealers have settled cases with the city. Some gun dealers tried to counter sue but their cases were dismissed.

"The city is pleased that in this ruling the judge dismissed all of the claims by two plaintiffs and many of the claims of the remaining plaintiff. The city looks forward to its day in court when it will introduce facts enabling the remaining claims to be dismissed," Bloomberg said in a statement when the gun dealers' counter suits were dismissed.

Mayors' Gun Group

Bloomberg also started Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a coalition of 240 mayors across the country dedicated to keeping weapons from entering their cities.

The NRA has said it will continue to fight Bloomberg's efforts and those of the coalition. "Mayors across the country have come to realize the coalition is nothing more than a front group for gun control," said Chris W. Cox, the National Rifle Association's chief lobbyist. "Mayor Bloomberg has wasted taxpayer money jet-setting across the country, holding media events and spreading a load of propaganda to other mayors," Cox said in a statement.

Jersey City's Healy, who was also one of the original members of the Mayor's Coalition, helped reduce crime in his city by getting guns off the streets.

To fight what he calls the proliferation of illegal gun crimes, Healy used his experience as a former prosecutor, judge and defense attorney to enact local variances to fight the problem. During his first year as mayor, he started a gun buy back program, even kicking in the first $1,000.

Local businesses chipped in and almost $200,000 later he was able to get 897 guns off the streets in three weekends. He also instituted an 11 p.m. curfew for residents and businesses in parts of the city that had higher incidents of violent crime.

Residents and businesses complained. When Jersey City passed municipal ordinances limiting the purchase of one hand gun per month and requiring lost or stolen guns to be reported missing within 48 hours, the NRA called the laws unconstitutional.

Within two years, violent crime in Jersey City dropped significantly. At the end of 2005 there were 38 homicides and 1,643 robberies and that fell to 22 homicides and 1,553 robberies in 2006. This year though in August, the city recorded 11 homicides and 782 robberies.

Despite his progress, Healy insists federal legislation needs to be tougher. "The issue of illegal guns is a federal plague that needs a federal cure, because in states that aren't tough on gun control, you can basically sell and buy guns wherever you want," he said. "We are not targeting hunters, gun collectors, target shooters or sportsmen. We want to take on illegal guns and the people who have them."

Culture of Violence

But tougher laws are only part of the solution, the mayor said. Other tools include violence prevention services and outreach programs to combat gang violence. Since 2004, 523 gang members have been arrested and 150 guns from gangs seized, in addition to a gang database established to identify national and local gangs and members.

Former Massachusetts Health Commissioner and Harvard University professor of Public Health Deborah Prothrow-Stith concurs that federal action is needed to stem gun violence. In her book "Murder Is No Accident," she writes, "The right to carry hand guns is a wrong. The Second Amendment, which is always evoked when gun sale regulation is considered, speaks to the rights of states to maintain militias. Most people seem not to know this, primarily as a result of the extensive and effective campaign of misinformation carried out for decades by gun lobbyists like the National Rifle Association."

Stith points out that "every day, 90 people die from gunshot wounds in the U.S., including four to six juveniles. In 1995, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention dedicated $2.6 million to conduct research on gun related injuries, compared with $800 million for research on automobile safety."

"Violence is deep-seated in the American culture. [It] dates back to Alexander Hamilton, who signed the Constitution. In 1804, Hamilton was killed in a duel against Vice President Aaron Burr in the same spot, in Hoboken, N.J., where his son had died in a duel three years earlier. Hamilton struggled over accepting the challenge. Dueling was illegal. It was against the Christian creed, and he bore Burr no ill will but yet felt compelled to accept the challenge. Both duels and urban violence grow out of minor disputes and serve as an alternative form of justice for those who do not see law enforcement as an option," she writes.

James Hernandez, who spent 15 years as a gang member and 15 years as a violence prevention counselor in the San Francisco Bay area, knows firsthand how intense the pressure is to not back down. His brother died in his arms from wounds caused by a gang fight.

Hernandez described how the availability of illegal guns, fueled with hatred, can make a minor situation erupt into something lethal and tragic. "Gun and gang violence is spreading everywhere, the suburbs, even in rural areas and Indian reservations. No one is immune to it. Kids join gangs because they know someone already in the gang. No one is a stranger, and it is instant status. My job is to keep resentment down, because combined with the availability of illegal guns, it's deadly."