Obama’s Gun Plan Won’t Stop Violence in Philly…or Any Big City

Why a ban on assault weapons is a poor litmus test for success

Flanked by children not much older than those gunned down in Sandy Hook Elementary, President Obama tasked Congress yesterday with passing the most aggressive series of gun reform measures in two decades, barely a month after asking Vice President Joe Biden for a roadmap to reducing gun violence.

If all goes according to plan, and that is definitely a big “IF,” lawmakers will re-instate the ban on assault weapons that expired in 2004, institute one on magazines that hold more than 10 cartridges, mandate that all gun purchasers be required to go through a national background check, and pump an additional $4 billion into hiring police officers, among other things. In addition to those legislative proposals, the President put forth a series of initiatives that require nothing more than his signature to affect, including a plan to restart government-funded research into gun violence, which an NRA-backed initiative has successfully blocked since 1996.

In total the President has pledged to sign a 23 such executive orders, all of which deal tangential issues – such as education and inter-agency communication – but will have no direct impact on access to firearms.

In other words, the real work needs to be done by Congress, and Republicans wasted little time in letting everyone know just how hard they intend to make it.

“Nothing the president is proposing would have stopped the massacre at Sandy Hook,” said Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who, along with the gun lobby, is working hard to change the national conversation to focus on the “underlying causes” of violence, namely mental illness. Indeed, President Obama’s reform package includes several mental health initiatives, including an effort to increase access to mental health services for Medicaid recipients.  Unfortunately, it will be most unlikely component of the President’s package to pass – a ban on rapid firing, military-style assault rifles – that will stand as the litmus test for the success or failure of the entire proposal. That’s a shame, because despite the symbolic importance of that goal, as any big city mayor will tell you, it’s not the cornerstone of comprehensive gun reform that many have come to see it as.

For one thing, for all their devastating fire power, assault weapons account for a tiny fraction of the murders committed by firearms in the United States. According to FBI data, rifles were only used in 323 murders in the U.S. in 2011; how many of those would fall under a new assault weapons ban is not clear, but it’s safe to say the number is small. By contrast, 6,220 murders, or 50 percent of all homicides committed in the U.S. in 2011, were attributable to handguns – which, with the exception of universal background checks that are already mandatory in many states, will face few new restrictions under the President’s plan.

Since the shootings in Newtown on December 14, more than 900 Americans have been gunned down, according to statistics cited by the White House. The majority of those 900 were taken out in the one-on-one violence that plays out every day on city streets from New York to Los Angeles.  Philadelphia averages more than 300 murders a year, most of them committed with firearms; and Chicago – the murder capital of the United States – had the unpleasant distinction of passing the 500-murder mark before the clock struck 2013. Over a recent three-year period, 260 schoolchildren were killed in Chicago, almost exclusively by handguns. Few if any made the national news.

While it’s no surprise the President’s plan has garnered widespread support from the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns, his proposal is largely geared toward addressing the devastating, but relatively rare, instances of mass shooting, while falling short on strategies for limiting the every day violence that plagues cities.

It’s little wonder why. The lone, white gunman dressed in riot gear that takes out two dozen people in a single go with a rifle that looks like it just fell out of a video game makes for riveting TV and generates a visceral response. But, as Bill Scher points out in The New Republic, the 68 people who died last year in mass shootings accounted for less than one-half of one percent of the 30,000 gun deaths (including suicides) in 2011 and a fraction of total homicides. Sadly, Americans have become accustomed to the ho-hum shoot-em-ups that pop off at all hours of the day and night not far from my East Kensington neighborhood.  Even when kids are killed in the crossfire, the headlines last little more than a day or two.

So what can be done?  There are a number of simple yet sensible policy initiatives that could have found a welcome home in the President’s speech yesterday. To reduce urban gun crime, the primary mission is to keep easily concealable handguns (yes, handguns) off the streets and away from the criminals who would use them for violence. This means making it harder for them to acquire guns and ammunition in the first place.

National background checks are a great place to start, but according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there aren’t many gang-bangers walking into gun shops (or gun shows) and plunking down their credit cards. Instead, 40 percent of criminals obtain their firearms from friends or family, while another 40 percent obtain their firearms from illegal sources on the street. Many of these “illegal sources” rely on third-party straw purchasers to acquire their weapons. Limiting handgun purchases to one per month would go a long way to staunching the flow of diverted weaponry.

Also, a law – such as one Mayor Nutter signed in 2008 – requiring gun owners to report their firearms lost or stolen within 48 hours of finding them missing is common sense policy that would make it harder for family and friends of criminals to pass on legally bought firearms.

These are two sensible policies that, in the long run, would likely have a more enduring impact on everyday gun violence in America than a law banning rifles with folding stocks and muzzle suppressors. I’m not saying aggressively pushing for an assault weapons ban is bad policy. I’m only saying that if we make it the defining component of our current push for more sensible gun policy, we risk missing the forest for the trees.