Acknowledging the obvious: gun control on the ropes

by pkerkstra on February 16, 2012

This column appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Feb. 14, 2012.

The gunfight is over, and the cities lost. The question is: Do they realize it yet?

For decades now, large majorities of urbanites – the people, the politicians, the interest groups – have favored stricter controls on guns, for reasons city residents find self-evident. In the last five years in Philadelphia, 1,656 people have been slain, and of those, more than 1,300 died of gunshot wounds. For many city residents, myself included, guns represent a plague, not protection.

From the perspective of bloody Philadelphia, gun-rights advocates – and their allies in Harrisburg and Washington – appear all too willing to tolerate death in the city so they can protect the sanctity of the Second Amendment in the country.

Gun owners don’t think about the debate in these terms, of course. They see gun control as an assault on a constitutionally guaranteed right, a classic case of government overreach that threatens their ability to protect their homes and families. What’s more, many are convinced gun control actually leads to more violence, not less.

Right or wrong, their arguments are winning. Big. Cities would do well to realize that new gun-control legislation is, for now at least, a nonstarter, and to focus on other crime-fighting strategies.

Instead, we have New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in a Super Bowl ad calling for “commonsense reforms that would save lives,” while desperately trying to look like a regular guy and not some overbearing statist. Bloomberg is chairman of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group that claims 600 members, including Mayor Nutter. Personally, I find its aims admirable, and given Bloomberg’s immense personal fortune and political independence, he’s well-suited to the quixotic role of gun-control champion.

In the short term, though, his agenda has no shot. According to an October Gallup poll, only 26 percent of Americans favor a handgun ban. More stunning is the finding that only 43 percent favored outlawing “assault rifles.” Good luck, Mayor Bloomberg.

A couple of decades ago, those polling numbers were altogether different. In 1991, 60 percent of respondents told Gallup that handguns ought to be banned, and 78 percent favored more stringent controls.

What accounts for the huge shift in public opinion? Some say people feared President Obama would snatch up all the guns, but that doesn’t wash. National sentiment began turning against more gun control before he took office, and the feds have done next to nothing to expand gun control since Obama arrived (indeed, the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence has given him “F’s” across the board).

A better explanation for the widening disapproval of gun control is that Americans are far less likely to be victims of violent crime today than they were two decades ago. The national homicide rate has fallen 51 percent since 1991. Guns are a lot less scary when they aren’t being used to kill as many people.

The homicide rate in Philadelphia has dropped over that period as well, but the decline hasn’t been as steep (30 percent) and our rate is still four times as high as the national number. Which is another way of saying that, in Philadelphia, guns are still completely terrifying.

So I understand why mayors of similarly violent cities want more tools to get rid of illegal guns; and why 30 Pennsylvania towns, including Philadelphia, have (futilely) adopted gun-control ordinances in defiance of state law.

And what did that get them? Pennsylvania House Bill 1523, now actively under consideration. If it passed in its current form, it would empower lawful gun owners and organizations (did somebody say NRA?) to sue cities that ignore the state prohibition on local gun-control measures. Cities that lose the legal fight would be on the hook for a $5,000 civil penalty per case, and damages up to triple the cost of litigation.

Mayor Nutter appears to realize that new gun-control laws are not likely, his membership in Mayors Against Illegal Guns notwithstanding. At the rollout of his new crime initiative last month, he didn’t mention new gun-control measures once, instead focusing on better using an existing law that allows for big jail sentences anytime someone is found on a city street with an illegal gun.

“I’ve got a state statute right now that can result in a sentence of five years. . . . Let’s use the tools that we have available,” Nutter said. “The Lord helps those that help themselves.”

Here’s hoping. Because Philadelphia needs to realize, when it comes to guns, the city won’t be getting help from anywhere else.

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