The Supreme Court decision last month overturning the District's handgun ban, though controversial, may have ended a long-standing political logjam. As a local law enforcement official, I hope this decision will allow a working coalition to transcend partisan disagreements and support strategies proven to reduce gun violence.
The ruling left almost entirely intact the gun restrictions in Maryland and most other jurisdictions. Still permitted are: licensing requirements, bans on concealed weapons, prohibitions on felons and the mentally ill possessing handguns, bans on carrying handguns in "sensitive places such as schools and government buildings" and conditions on the commercial sale of firearms.
It's time to move forward. We must develop more rational policies to reduce gun violence. Law enforcement efforts alone are not enough. We need comprehensive and coordinated strategies that rely on intervention and prevention programs -- especially those targeting at-risk youths in high-crime areas.
Unfortunately, Democrats and Republicans alike have long benefited from making this a partisan issue. Many Republicans, along with rights groups such as the National Rifle Association, have energized their constituencies by claiming that their opponents were "trying to take away our guns." Gun ownership was a reliable wedge issue that Republicans used to win swing voters and that gun rights groups use to raise millions of dollars to support their advocacy efforts. Over time, the fear of gun confiscation grew so great that some groups ended up in extreme positions, such as opposing bans on "cop killer" bullets or on plastic guns that are invisible to metal detectors. To those groups, no restriction on gun ownership was reasonable: We simply need police, prosecutors and judges to stop "coddling" criminals and give them longer prison sentences, they argued.
Yet the liberal coalition developed its own extremes. Democrats and others were frequently unwilling to recognize any right to gun ownership and motivated their constituents, especially those in urban areas with high crime rates, by claiming that the NRA would flood our streets with weapons that would wreak havoc. To some, it seemed that no civilian should ever own a gun and that the government should ban gun ownership or impose as many restrictions as possible on it. It didn't matter that an owner had never committed a crime or demonstrated mental or emotional instability. Some groups have also opposed longer prison terms for gun-related crimes, even though tough sentencing of violent offenders has been a critical component of crime reduction.
To local law enforcement leaders, neither extreme will stop the violence. And the consequences are staggering: Homicide has been a leading cause of death for young African American men for nearly two decades. Usually a firearm is involved in these deaths. Increasingly, the motive for the killing is trivial, and I have heard them all: He cut ahead of me in line; he wouldn't give me a cigarette; he looked at my woman.
Gun bans alone won't stop senseless violence. And encouraging people to buy and carry weapons results in more gunfire -- and raises the likelihood that innocent bystanders will be hurt.
I hope the ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller forces this debate to the middle. Boston, New York, Cincinnati and other cities have dramatically reduced gun violence through a combination of tough guns laws, longer prison terms for violators, reasonable restrictions on gun ownership, and intervention and prevention programs that target at-risk youths.
But states and localities could use more federal help. The government should:
· Restore funding for local crime-fighting programs such as the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grants, as well as for Community Oriented Policing Services, both of which were cut deeply by the Bush administration last year. This would enable localities to hire more police officers and supply them with needed technology.
· Close the gun show loophole, ban "dangerous and unusual" firearms such as assault weapons, require microstamp identifiers on fired cartridges, and allow local law officials to access federal gun-trace data used to track illegal gun dealers.
· Fully fund the new Second Chance Act, which would help ex-offenders with the employment and education assistance they need to become productive citizens. Also, provide more funds for school and community programs proven to reduce youth violence.
· Increase federal prosecutions of gun cases, especially in states that lack or do not impose stiff sentences for gun offenders.
By assuring law-abiding citizens' right to own guns but leaving intact most restrictions on owning and carrying guns, the court may have taken away the red meat for extremists on both sides. Perhaps now the federal government can strengthen its political partnership with localities and states to stop gun violence.
Glenn F. Ivey, state's attorney for Prince George's County. He was a prosecutor in Washington from 1990 to 1994 and joined the amicus brief with 17 elected prosecutors in District of Columbia v. Heller.