Aiming to reduce gun violence
In June, New York made national headlines when it became the 32nd local government in the United States to sue the gun industry. The suit prompted the predictable volley of praise and ire, as the city charged gun makers with, among other things, manufacturing unreasonably dangerous products, and distributing and marketing those products irresponsibly.
The suits filed by New York and other jurisdictions are indicative of widespread concern about gun violence, yet they are waged in the national arena, where they have overshadowed the efforts of many communities (including some of the plaintiffs themselves) to address gun violence on the local stage. There, cities and counties are passing ordinances, instituting gun safety programs, providing a means for disposal of unwanted firearms, and implementing programs to keep guns out of schools. By doing so, they hope to reduce the number of gun-related injuries and deaths in their communities.
Local loss; local solution
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, based in Atlanta, there were more than 38,500 firearm-related deaths in the United States in 1994 (the latest year for which statistics are reported). Of those, 17,866 were homicides, 18,765 were suicides, and 1,356 were unintentional deaths.
Since 1994, violent crime, including murder, has declined steadily, according to the Uniform Crime Report, which is issued annually by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. (The latest year for which the UCR is available is 1998.) Additionally, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) reports that, by 1998, the number of crimes committed with firearms had declined to levels “last experienced in the mid-1980s.”
Of the 670,000 victims of violent crime in 1998, 23 percent faced an offender with a firearm, according to DOJ. Of the 16,914 murders that year, 65 percent were committed with firearms.
Even with an overall decline in violent crime, however, local governments remain alarmed by gun violence, particularly as it relates to juvenile offenders and victims. A sampling of local headlines from June alone illustrates the root of that concern: “Juvenile faces charges in 17-year-old’s death,” Roanoke Times, Roanoke, Va.; “Houston 14-year-old held in fatal shooting,” Houston Chronicle; “Teen shot at home of gun collector,” Rocky Mountain News, Denver; “Two boys bring gun to school,” Miami Herald; “Indiana 15-year-old boy dies from accidental gunshot wound,” Post-Tribune, Gary, Ind.; “Teen killed by accidental shot,” Las Vegas Sun; “Three-year-old boy dies in accidental shooting,” Midland Reporter Telegram, Midland, Texas.
Stories such as those were the impetus for 1997 laws in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland. Spearheaded by Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan and Prince George’s County Executive Wayne Curry, the legislation requires anyone purchasing or leasing a handgun in the counties to buy or receive a gun lock from the gun dealer. Conversely, all gun dealers in the counties must sell or give gun locks to the purchasers or lessees at the point of sale. Also, guns must be stored away from unsupervised children.
Although the laws require the purchase and sale of locks, they fall short of requiring gun owners to use the devices. That, coupled with the fact that the laws do not apply to guns purchased before passage of the legislation, has prompted education and trigger lock giveaway programs in both counties.
Sponsored by the local Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), the Montgomery County gun safety campaign has two main components: * Providing free trigger locks to anyone who requests them; and * Using videos and printed material to emphasize safety and the prevention of unintentional firearm injuries.
The materials are distributed by DHHS at the county fair, neighborhood festivals and as part of its health programs in schools and at holidays. The videos have been broadcast on local cable television, and local gun shops stock the county’s safety pamphlets. Additionally, the county partnered with the Washington Chiefs, a semi-professional football team, members of which appeared at local events and distributed the safety locks.
At the county fair, in particular, DHHS has been able to survey gun owners and gather information to focus the gun safety campaign. For example, at last year’s fair, the department interviewed 580 gun owners who did not own safety locks, and it discovered that: * 85 percent owned at least one handgun. * Of handgun owners, 38 percent owned one gun; 36 percent owned two to four guns; 7 percent owned five to eight guns; and 5 percent owned nine or more guns. * Of all the gun owners surveyed, 42 percent had no children under the age of 16 living at home; 25 percent had two children at home; and 22 percent had one child at home. * 42 percent owned a gun for sport; 38 percent for protection; 15 percent collected guns; and 14 percent had guns for “other” reasons (e.g., work). * 39 percent stored their guns in closets; 16 percent under pillows; 8 percent in unlocked bedside tables; and 4 percent under mattresses.
“People just were not knowledgeable,” says Lynn Frank, chief of public health services for DHHS. “As a matter of fact, most people really felt that they could protect their children from unintentional injury. So a lot of the program was targeted at getting people to understand that hiding a gun in the closet isn’t going to work.”
To date, DHHS has distributed 2,000 gun locks. The initial cost for the safety campaign was $38,000, including the cable locks, production of the videos and pamphlets, and contracting with the football team. The department has a budget of $5,000 a year for purchasing additional locks. “We haven’t had any unintentional gun injuries since we launched the campaign in January 1998,” Frank says. “We have had really good response. It was not a controversial issue, I think because we made it very clear that the campaign was not targeted against ownership of guns. It was just a campaign making sure that guns are safe at home.”
Locking in on safety
Whether through legislation or giveaway campaigns, gun locks are increasingly prevalent in the local government fight against gun violence. Chicago and Toledo, Ohio, have recently passed lock-related laws, and Seattle is partnering in two programs to provide gun owners with safe-storage devices.
Last month, Chicago enacted a law requiring its more than 13,000 police officers to place keyed trigger locks on their guns when they are off duty. The mandate is in keeping with Illinois state law, which requires gun owners to secure guns – either with trigger locks or locked storage boxes – in homes with children 14 years old and younger. Toledo’s lock law is one of two gun-related ordinances passed by the city council in the last year. Like Chicago, Toledo requires gun owners to store their guns either in a locked compartment or with a trigger guard. Additionally, it requires that guns be stored unloaded.
According to Toledo Police Chief Michael Navarre, the gun lock legislation is being enforced. “It’s a misdemeanor of the first degree (punishable with a $1,000 maximum fine and six months maximum in jail),” he says. “We had one incident where a child ended up at school with a gun. The gun was unloaded, but it was still in their possession. We went back – it was a neighbor’s house or a relative’s house – and found that this was a gun that was not being stored properly, and we charged the person.”
The gun lock legislation was controversial. “There’s a pretty large contingent of NRA (National Rifle Association) supporters in this area, and they were opposed to any type of legislation that had to do with guns,” Navarre explains. Even more controversial, however, was the city’s ban on small, concealable guns and unsafe guns.
Nicknamed the Saturday Night Special ordinance, the law bans the sale, possession and ownership of certain guns, based on the length of their barrels or the way they are made. “They’re made with inferior steel and things like that,” Navarre says.
“The only way [we could] pass that one was to put in a grandfather clause,” he notes. “We didn’t want to pass a law that made law-abiding citizens criminals merely by owning a gun they had legally purchased prior to passage of the law. Anybody that owned these guns prior to passage of the ordinance was required to fill out an affidavit and have it notarized, listing all the guns they owned. Those guns would be grandfathered, and they’d be able to keep them.”
(A third piece of legislation, still being considered, seeks to ban the sale, possession and ownership of assault weapons in Toledo. “Those are weapons that are semi-automatic, [having] fixed magazines with capacity in excess of five rounds; bayonet mounts; pistol grips; folding stocks; flash suppressors; things like that,” Navarre says. “The public for the most part is really not opposed to this legislation because it doesn’t take away a person’s right to own a gun. It just tells them that there are certain guns that really are used mainly by criminals. We see a lot of very cheap guns with high capacity on the street; those are the types of guns being used in drive-by shootings and things like that. They are not the kind of guns that you need to keep in your house, and they’re not the kind of guns people use for sport or for hunting.”)
Putting a lid on it
Although Seattle has not passed legislation related to gun locks, it is one of many cities implementing programs to encourage safe storage of guns. In fact, Seattle and North Providence, R.I., are finalizing agreements with the Newtown, Conn.-based National Sports Shooting Foundation, under which the organization will provide free trigger locks to the cities for distribution to residents. More than 400 cities already participate in the NSSF program, called Project HomeSafe.
Additionally, Seattle is providing $50,000 to the Injury Prevention and Research Center (IPRC) at Harborview Hospital in King County to support the center’s Safe Storage campaign. Begun in 1997, the program encourages gun owners to store their firearms in locked cases.
“When we started the campaign, our principal concern was adolescent suicide,” says Evan Simpson, former director of public affairs for IPRC. “The western states have a particularly high rate of adolescent suicide, and Washington state has the 10th highest rate in the country. In Washington, 80 percent of those deaths are handgun-related.”
Data from 1990 to 1995 show that, in King County, most of the guns involved in suicides and unintentional injuries of youth (ages 19 years and younger) came from the victim’s home or the home of a relative or friend. In 1997, the center began a series of surveys to determine common gun storage practices and the types of devices that would most likely be used by gun owners who were not currently securing their firearms.
The center conducted telephone surveys of gun owners in Seattle and 10 other cities west of the Mississippi River. It also conducted a nationwide survey of police officers and interviewed local gun shop owners to determine what devices they recommended for firearms storage.
“We’ve done a fair amount of research here, and [we’ve found that] the most frequent reason for acquisition of a handgun is protection,” says David Grossman, co-director of IPRC. “We also know that the reason people keep guns loaded and unlocked relates to the reason they purchased the gun in the first place: Gun owners who keep guns for protection want to have fairly rapid access to their guns.”
“We are primarily concerned about families that own handguns for personal protection because those are the firearms they keep loaded and close at hand and unsecured,” Simpson says. “So we were particularly interested in finding a device that these people would find credible and worthwhile.”
Trigger locks did not fit the bill. “They didn’t like trigger locks because you have to go fumbling for your key or, if there was a rotary combination, you couldn’t see it in the dark,” Simpson explains. “So we settled on a lockbox that has a pushbutton combination that you just push in the proper sequence. You could open it in a matter of seconds.” (See the photograph on page 38.) Having selected the device it wanted to promote, IPRC approached regional retailer Fred Myer to sell the lockboxes at a discount. “If you buy the box in gun shops or sporting goods stores, it’s over $100,” Simpson says. “Fred Myer is selling the boxes for $79, and they have provided us with coupons for an additional $10 off.”
During the first six months of Safe Storage, Washington residents purchased 1,000 lockboxes. The campaign slowed when a state ballot measure regarding firearms licensing and training ignited controversy. “It became a very hot political issue, and our coalition – which was primarily law enforcement and public health types – got very nervous,” Simpson says. “They were getting pulled one way or another, and the television stations were getting concerned that our [public service announcement] was bordering on the political. So we shelved the campaign until the ballot measure had run its course.”
Promotion of Safe Storage resumed following the school shooting in Littleton, Colo. Seattle provided utility bill inserts in late 1999, and, with the city’s latest contribution, IPRC plans to increase its advertising, promoting the lockboxes and a telephone hotline. (Callers can obtain information on safe handgun storage and request the discount coupons for purchase of the lockboxes.)
Paying for prevention
While partnerships have been beneficial in gun lock campaigns, they have proven to be indispensable in gun buy-back programs. That was the lesson learned in North Providence, when, in July 1999, it “purchased” 105 unwanted guns from area residents.
“We approached a local company, Rizzo Ford, and it sponsored the entire buy-back,” says North Providence Mayor Ralph Mollis. “[The company] helped us advertise, and we gave $25 to each individual who came in with a firearm, no matter the condition of the gun. There was no cost to the community.”
Toledo and Prichard, Ala., received similar financial backing through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. “You have to have funds to do this, and our housing board got a $5,000 grant from HUD,” says Frank Dees, a captain for the Prichard Police Department.
Prichard has undertaken two buy-backs this year, and, for a month prior to each, the police department promoted the program in the local media, with neighborhood flyers and through local churches. “The best way to start is with the media, the churches, community centers and community organizations,” Dees advises.
When the buy-backs got under way, the city ran out of money before it ran out of sellers. “We had to turn people away,” Dees says. “People had had these guns in the house, and most of them were widows [who were getting rid of their husband’s guns] or people saying, ‘I have small kids, and I want to get these guns out of my house.’ They had shotguns, pistols, you name it.”
The department accepted only guns in working order, with no questions asked. “We checked the serial numbers on them, and some of them were stolen,” Dees says. “We can’t condemn those, so we would do our best to get them back to the owner.” (If the owner was not located, the gun was stored.)
Prichard’s first buy-back occurred in 1998, when local residents donated money for the gun purchases. According to Dees, the three buy-backs have removed more than 1,000 guns from Prichard and surrounding communities.
Toledo had a similar response to two buy-back events in May. “We used some of the money that HUD made available to the local HUD offices,” Navarre says. “They made $25,000 available to us, and it took us about two-and-a-half days to get through that because we were offering $50 per gun. They came back two weeks later and gave us another $25,000, so we announced an identical program with identical results. [The combined programs] took in over 1,000 guns in less than five days.”
Clamping down on campus
Gun violence in general is at the forefront of public policy nationwide, yet school shootings, in particular, have galvanized U.S. citizens. In June, State Legislatures magazine published a summary of gun-related bills passed by state legislatures since 1995. Of the 72 bills, 10 percent regarded the use of gun safety devices; 17 percent prohibited local governments from suing gun manufacturers; and 39 percent were aimed at reducing gun violence in schools. Attention to schools is mirrored on the local level, where cities and counties are implementing gun safety and violence-prevention programs and maintaining a police presence on campuses.
Many local governments, such as those in Hammond, Ind.; Cape Coral, Fla; Allentown, Pa.; and Jackson, Miss., have instituted programs to instruct children on the dangers of firearms and the need to avoid them. Those cities have adopted the Fairfax, Va.-based NRA’s Eddie Eagle program, or a version thereof, which is designed for students in kindergarten through middle school. With videos, activity books and a ready-made mascot, the program teaches students to leave guns alone: “Stop! Don’t touch. Leave the area. Tell an adult.”
For older students, Virginia Beach, Va., has introduced “Options, Choices and Consequences,” a program intended to prevent gun violence by helping students understand the medical and legal consequences of a shooting. Attending one-hour sessions over three consecutive days, ninth-graders are addressed by a police officer, a physician and a state attorney. They are presented with statistical, anecdotal and graphic details about gun violence. They then work through a hypothetical gun-at-school scenario, analyzing the options of the people in the story and discussing the choices they would make if they found themselves in a similar situation. (Seattle has implemented a similar program directed at middle school students.)
As in many other cities, police officers in Toledo participate in school safety presentations, yet the city has found that a full-time police presence in schools can be equally valuable to the community. “We have put officers in all the junior and senior high schools for the last six years,” Navarre says. “Schools are really communities in and of themselves, and those officers become members of that community. They’re able to develop information, and they try to head off a lot of problems before they start.”
In Freeport, N.Y., “heading off problems” could prove to be a problem in and of itself. There, the local police department has proposed random inspections to deter students from bringing firearms or other weapons to school. Called the School Weapon Interception and Prevention Effort (SWIPE), the program is being considered by students, teachers, parents and the school board.
“This is really something that requires a consensus approval from the entire community before you can implement a program such as this because there are many concerns on the part of faculty members, parents and students themselves,” says Michael Woodward, Freeport’s chief of police. “People want to know if there’s something occurring in the schools that they’re unaware of. When we say ‘No,’ that is immediately followed by, ‘Then why would you think an intrusion of this magnitude is warranted on our children’s individual civil liberties?’ We’ve seen the tragedies [at other schools], and, rather than wait for something and become reactive, we would like to be right up front in addressing this and preventing a tragedy like that from occurring.”
If SWIPE is implemented, school personnel would conduct the unannounced searches of students and lockers. As students entered the school, they would pass an “amnesty area,” where they could dispose of weapons prior to being searched. Police officers would be present to ensure that discarded weapons are not stolen from the amnesty area. Also, if a weapon were discovered during a search, the police would escort the student to the principal’s office or, if possession of the weapon violated local law, arrest the student.
The Big Guns are squared off in the headlines, but, beyond the front page, cities and counties are taking immediate action to address gun violence in their own communities. Careful to avoid action against gun ownership, they are instead focusing on safety.
Their successes have not come without opposition. In addition to Toledo, which weathered objections to its legislation, North Providence was sued when it announced its gun buy-back program. (The suit was subsequently dismissed.) Harborview Hospital’s safety program was halted in the wake of an unrelated, yet gun-related, ballot measure. And political questions were raised when Seattle considered the NSSF trigger lock program.
In the end, all of those cities stuck to their guns, which included a simple message, echoed by Seattle Budget Analyst Greg Petersen: “You know, if you have a gun, no judgments about the fact that you own it. Let’s just make it safer.”