How Urban Violence Fits Into Gun-Control Policy

Jan 19, 2013
Originally published on January 19, 2013 7:13 am
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Last month's shootings in Newtown seemed to be a kind of last straw, for many Americans. President Obama seemed to speak with urgency and resolve when he announced a plan to try to stem gun violence that would provide more resources for schools, law enforcement, mental health care and gun retailers.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If there's even one thing we can do to reduce this violence, if there's even one life that can be saved, then we've got an obligation to try.

SIMON: But violence continues in many inner cities across America, usually with far less attention than Newtown. Chicago, the president's hometown, had 506 homicides in 2012, a sharp increase from the year before. David M. Kennedy directs the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in New York City. Thanks very much for being with us, Professor Kennedy.

DAVID M. KENNEDY: Thank you.

SIMON: Who's responsible for most of the killing in these neighborhoods?

KENNEDY: The short answer is groups of extremely active street offenders. So you mentioned Chicago, and we've been doing work in the most dangerous neighborhood in Chicago - or at least, until recently was the most dangerous neighborhood - West Garfield Park. And it's a neighborhood of about 90,000 people. And my colleague Andrew Papachristos, at Yale, has identified a network of just a few thousand street offenders. It includes, if you go back five years, most of the homicides that have taken place in that neighborhood.

SIMON: Then, forgive me, why isn't it easier to just isolate them, pick them up on a gun charge, somehow prevent them from committing acts of violence?

KENNEDY: That doesn't work, in part because there is a street dynamic at work that will tend to produce more such groups and more such individuals. What we want to do is change their behavior. The basic framework that's being applied now all across the country is to sit down and speak with them. And that is done by community figures, by law enforcement, by social providers. And in various ways, that conversation goes: we know who you are, we know what you're doing, your community needs this to stop, we would like to help you if you will let us. And this is not a negotiation. We're not asking. And we're putting you on prior notice of the law enforcement consequences that will follow if your violence continues. And it turns out to be quite remarkably effective.

SIMON: Do you think any of President Obama's executive orders address this kind of daily gun violence?

KENNEDY: The elements of the packets that have the most to do with this kind of everyday street violence are expanding background checks and addressing firearms trafficking. The kind of street offenders that we've been talking about don't walk into sporting goods stores and buy their guns. They can't. Most of them already have extensive criminal records. So, people steal guns from houses and such and they end up on the street. And what we call the straw purchasers, in which people who are legally entitled to buy firearms do so and then sell them on the street. All of this has been enabled by the fact that there is what's called the secondary market in firearms, which allows private parties to sell guns without federal recordkeeping and background checks and by what turn out to be fantastically small penalties for firearms trafficking. You can sell a vial of crack on a street corner and get more jail time than by selling dozens of guns on that same street corner. And changing those things will help.

SIMON: But I have to ask: having done reporting in Englewood in Chicago, I certainly had the impression there's so many guns that if you're able to stop the trafficking tomorrow, there would still be millions of guns on the street.

KENNEDY: There are not as many guns on the street and it's not as easy for even seasoned bad guys to get them as people think. And it can be even more difficult for them to get ammunition. So, any economist will tell you that if you raise the price of something you will sell less of it. And we have not done very much to raise the price of illegal gun acquisition.

SIMON: What else do you think might help some?

KENNEDY: The more we have learned about how concentrated gun offending is - this is, for all practical purposes, entirely a problem of seasoned criminal offenders - gang activity and drug market activity and robbery, homicide, all that sort of thing - the more evident it's become that there are these very commonsense ways of intervening with them to quite dramatically sometimes reduce their violence. And the commonsense package on this has always been to work both sides. You do something about how to get guns and you do something about how they use guns.

SIMON: David M. Kennedy, who directs the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Thanks very much for speaking with us.

KENNEDY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.