NSF Occasional Commentary
Reducing Gun Violence?
New Legislation Will Do Little Good
Given Diminishing Enforcement Capabilities
By Jeanne Hull Godfroy
Current discussions and debates on gun control legislation contain substantial gaps obscured by rhetoric, questionable statistics, and political posturing. The proposed legislation focuses on improved background checks and restricting access to assault weapons and magazine sizes – the idea being to prevent more spectacular school and mall shootings that gain national attention.
While it is commendable that efforts are being made to bring down gun violence, the legislations is likely to be more of a “feel good” balm than actually reducing gun deaths. This is because of the nature of the preponderance of gun violence in our society, and what many have neglected, a serious shortfall in the availability of law enforcement personnel to combat this dire situation.
First, by way of review, let’s examine some key statistics with respect to gun violence. The United States has a much higher per capita death rate from guns than any other developed country—by far. There are cities in the U.S. that experience a higher death toll from gun violence than the civilian death tally in Afghanistan. Chicago suffered over 500 deaths by guns in 2012, largely gang on gang violence in the inner cities.
A child is killed in the U.S, by a gun every three hours, and a disproportionate number of these children were black or Hispanic—Afro-Americans accounted for nearly half the total. The majority of this violence occurs in the inner cities, by guns that are illegally owned and obtained as a key ingredient in the gang warfare over lucrative drug operations. Most killings are the work of adult males ages 18-39.
Where are the law enforcement capabilities going to come from?
More attention, of course, has been focused on “mass killings” in largely white suburban areas. That is understandable, but what the discussions regarding gun violence wherever it occurs—in the cities, on campuses, on malls—have missed is the diminishing supply of federal and local law-enforcement personnel and resources available to protect our citizens and enforce any more restrictive gun control legislation.
In addition, some of the legislation states have enacted has unintentionally inhibited existing law enforcement personnel from performing their duties. Thus, in their hurry to push any sort of legislation through, our lawmakers appear to be overlooking the requirements to implement and enforce new gun control measures. Where are the law enforcement resources going to come from?
These basic problems with gun control enforcement are not new or unique to the United States. My army unit struggled with strikingly similar problems in Iraq after the 2003 invasion. The defeated Iraqi military had left unsecured explosives, munitions and guns over large swaths of territory. In addition, every Iraqi household contained multiple weapons, ranging from pistols to AK-47 assault rifles, to Dragoon sniper rifles, RPGs, and hand grenades. When my unit attempted to enforce new rules designed to disarm the civilian population and secure the loose munitions, they were inhibited from doing so by two factors: insufficient forces required to police household firearms and loose munitions, and opposition from the Iraqis themselves. Ultimately, American authorities had to revise the rules on weapons possession in response to those issues—a lack of sufficient enforcement personnel and local customs.
We face similar challenges today attempting to regulate gun violence in the United States. Specifically, we lack sufficient law enforcement personnel and resources to reduce the amount of illegal guns – primarily handguns—from our streets. Like insurgent organizations in Iraq, criminals, gangs and cartels make no effort to acquire guns legally; instead they acquire these weapons through theft, the black market, and third party intermediaries who are able to withstand background checks avoid them.
And, much like the citizens of Iraq, many U.S. citizens living in gang-controlled neighborhoods fear for the security of themselves and their families. Law enforcement presence in many of these neighborhoods is sporadic and insufficient to either find and remove the thousands of illegal guns already there or provide security in other forms. In response to the security challenges in those neighborhoods, many citizens maintain both legal and illegal weapons to protect themselves and their families. The result: additional guns on the streets and gun violence in these neighborhoods.
Gun control efforts are further complicated by government reductions in law enforcement personnel and resources in response to budget constraints. In the city of Newburgh, New York, for example—a city whose per-capita gun violence rivals that of Chicago, New York and Los Angeles—the police force is being reduced by approximately 25 percent. New York City, whose Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, is adamant about passing new gun control measures, announced cutbacks in its police force due to lack of funds in 2011. In addition—thanks to sequestration—at least two federal agencies responsible for controlling large supplies of weapons on U.S. soil, the FBI and the ATF, are planning furloughs across the board. Border patrol agencies are undergoing similar reductions and furloughs. Even if those furloughs are not implemented, hiring freezes and forced retirements are likely to significantly reduce the numbers of federal law enforcement personnel for the foreseeable future.
Given the cutbacks in law enforcement across federal, state and local budgets, how can we possibly expect significantly reduced and over-tasked forces to add increased gun control measures to an already overflowing plate?
A First Priority: Thinking Through the Implications of New Legislation
Rushing to legislation without working through the challenges associated with implementation is hardly the answer to our gun control woes. New York State, for example, pushed through legislation so quickly that it forgot to exclude federal, state and local law enforcement personnel from its new weapons and magazine requirements. The result—many of those personnel became legally prohibited from taking their assigned weapons and ammunition to work. Other cities and states across America are responding similarly to cutbacks in funding by reducing the numbers of law enforcement and emergency services personnel from their payrolls. And, absent scrutiny, the “quick fix” legislation presently being debated in Congress may prevent those people who are paid to keep us safe from being able to adequately perform their assigned duties and responsibilities.
Reinstituting an assault weapons ban and improving the scope and quality of background checks are unlikely to significantly reduce gun violence in this country. The reality is that diminishing law enforcement resources and personnel will likely have a much greater negative impact on gun violence than any benefits from these changes. The United States’ leaders and lawmakers ought to take a serious look at budget constraints and allocations first before adding to the requirements of an already reduced and over-burdened capability. Lawmakers owe it to their constituents to avoid political bickering and knee-jerk reactions to pressure from interest groups; instead they must take the time to evaluate all aspects of the problem to generate practical, durable solutions.
- Jeanne Hull Godfroy is a former Army officer currently working at the Council on Foreign Relations on an International Affairs Fellowship. She specializes in counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism, and counter-gang / criminal activity. Jeanne Godfroy is a graduate of McQueen High School in Reno and West Point, and served one tour in Bosnia and three combat tours in Iraq. She wishes to thank Dr. Tyrus W. Cobb for his assistance in preparing this piece.