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In America, guns have been a part of the country for more years than can be counted. Throughout history, citizens of the US have used guns to protect their country, their families, and to hunt for food and engage in shooting activities excelling their skills. The gun control issue dates back as one of the most controversial issues and has become more prominent through the years with increased mass shootings across the US. With this in towe, anti-gun violence programs have popped up across the country in efforts to decrease the relationship between guns and violence.
The question remains, are America’s policies and programs against gun violence making a difference?
Controlling gun crime continues to be a difficult challenge for policymakers and practitioners in the US. In 2010, there were nearly 10,000 murders with firearms in the US and another 3,38,000 non‐fatal violent crimes with guns (Roehl, 2006). Yet finding common ground for legislative solutions to this problem is quite difficult, making it especially critical to effectively enforce existing laws and utilize other prevention approaches.
Debates on controlling firearms violence often revolve around whether the nation needs tougher gun laws or better enforcement of laws that already exist. However, these debates are not well informed by information on what law enforcement agencies are doing to reduce gun violence, the success of those efforts, and the factors that facilitate or hinder those efforts. To address these gaps, this paper presents results from a national survey of gun violence prevention efforts by local police in urban US jurisdictions.
The study describes the range, scope, prevalence, and limitations of police efforts to reduce gun violence, and offers some assessments of the effectiveness and impacts of these practices.
Police typically handle gun crimes reactively, investigating violent gun crimes and making arrests for illegal possession or carrying when they encounter violations during routine activities (e.g. answering calls for service and making traffic stops). To varying degrees, police also use proactive strategies to emphasize a focus on gun crime. These include disrupting the illegal supply of firearms, reducing illegal gun possession, targeting known gun offenders and others at high risk for gun violence, undertaking educational and preventive activities, and collaborating with other criminal justice, government, and community organizations on initiatives that combine enforcement, prosecutorial, and prevention elements.
However, despite efforts to promote many of these practices among US police relatively little is known about how widely police use these various strategies or about the outcomes of these efforts. What is known of police efforts to reduce gun violence is largely anecdotal, based on descriptions or evaluations of strategies in a relatively small number of jurisdictions. Evidence suggests that there are substantial differences across jurisdictions in the intensity of gun enforcement and prevention efforts (Sherman and Bridgeforth, 1994). However, there has been no systematic research to examine the range, scope, and prevalence of police efforts to reduce gun violence across the nation. Further, little is known about the effectiveness of many police strategies to reduce gun crime or whether levels of police enforcement and prevention effort are related to rates of gun crime.
Overall, available evidence suggests that police efforts targeted on high‐risk places, behaviors, and actors are effective, particularly when conducted in the context of multi‐agency problem‐solving efforts. For example, crackdowns on illegal gun carrying in gun crime hot spots, often done through directed patrols focussed on gun detection, appear effective in reducing gun crime and improving citizens’ perceptions of neighborhood conditions in targeted areas (Koper, 2016). Efforts targeted on high‐risk groups such as gangs, probationers, parolees, and known chronic offenders are another important evidence based approach to reducing gun crime (OJJDP, 1999).
More generally, it has become increasingly common for police to work collaboratively with other criminal justice, government, social service, and community organizations to diagnose and address gun violence problems using a problem solving approach (OJJDP, 1999). The Federal Government has sponsored other initiatives of this sort, such as the Partnerships to Reduce Juvenile Gun Violence Program (PERF, 2010) and PSN (Roehl, 2006). The growing federal role in addressing local gun crime problems, largely through PSN, is also reflected by the 73 percent increase in federal firearms prosecutions that occurred from 2001 through 2005 (Sherman et al., 1994).
In contrast, police efforts to attack the supply side of the gun crime problem appear to have little or unknown effectiveness. Gun buyback or exchange programs that offer cash or other reimbursements to persons who relinquish their firearms to police do not appear to be an effective way of disarming high‐risk persons or reducing the overall criminal supply of firearms (NRC, 2005,) though some argue that they have value as a community outreach and mobilization strategy (OJJDP, 1999). At the same time, there is little evidence about the extent or effectiveness of police efforts to disrupt illegal gun markets through investigation of gun theft, gun trafficking, and other illegal gun sales. Many US agencies, particularly in urban areas, appear to trace the sales histories of recovered guns with the assistance of the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) and to work with ATF on efforts to attack illegal gun trafficking (OJJDP, 1999). However, there has been little in‐depth study or assessment of such efforts. The tools available to police to address illegal gun markets vary substantially depending on state and local gun laws (for instance, many states have no provisions for licensing gun owners or gun dealers, regulating private gun sales, or requiring citizens to report stolen firearms). Yet even in jurisdictions with more restrictive gun laws, there has been little examination of police uses or experiences with these laws. This constitutes an important “missing link” in debates over the efficacy of many gun control laws (Associated Press, 2011). Some studies show that locally based efforts to disrupt gun trafficking, discourage straw purchasing and illegal second hand sales, regulate and work cooperatively with licensed gun dealers, and investigate corrupt or negligent gun dealers can reduce the flow of new firearms to criminal users (Roehl, 2006). But whether such efforts are commonplace and can reduce the gun supply sufficiently to reduce gun crime are unclear (NRC, 2005).
Finally, education and prevention strategies conducted by or involving police include teaching children and youth about gun safety and the consequences of gun violence, promoting safe storage of firearms by adults through education and the distribution of lock boxes, and participating in a variety of other gang and violence prevention programs (OJJDP, 1999). Research suggests that efforts to change gun‐related attitudes and behaviors have not had great success (NRC, 2005), but many programs of these sorts have not been evaluated.
In sum, current knowledge is rather limited on the use and effectiveness of police strategies to reduce gun violence. In this study, I sought to provide new insights into these issues through a national survey of local US police agencies in urban areas.
The main objective of this study was to provide more extensive information on the nature, scope, and prevalence of various police efforts to reduce gun crime, including the extent to which police use evidence based and other “promising” strategies (OJJDP, 1999). A related objective was to examine police enforcement of selected gun control laws, particularly those that would seem to enhance the ability of law enforcement to prevent the transfer of guns to illegal possessors (e.g. laws requiring gun registration or regulating private gun transfers). To these ends, I used a police agency survey instrument that included items on violent gun crime, weapons arrests (i.e. arrests for illegal weapon possession and carrying as reported to the Uniform Crime Reports), and gun recoveries (from all sources) in the study jurisdictions; state/local gun laws and enforcement activities related to those laws; and the use and perceived effectiveness of an extensive list of enforcement and prevention strategies that agencies might use to address gun crime.
In the fall of 2009, said survey was administered by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) to all 263 primary law enforcement agencies serving cities of 1,00,000 or more people in the USA. I focussed on the police in large cities due to the concentration of gun crime in urban jurisdictions and the likelihood that addressing gun crime is a higher priority for police in these localities; thus the findings are not representative of police practices in smaller cities, suburban jurisdictions, rural areas, or the nation as a whole. Overall, 164 agencies (62 percent) responded to the survey.
Analysis of responding and non‐responding agencies showed that the responding sample is more heavily weighted toward larger agencies policing larger cities with more serious violence problems. Responding agencies served populations averaging over 4,00,000; in contrast, non‐responding agencies served populations of about 1,71,000. (Among agencies serving cities of 2,00,000 or more, 71 percent responded to the survey.) Further, responding agencies had officer to population ratios 18 percent larger than those of non‐responding agencies, and their cities had homicide rates 55 percent higher than those of non‐respondents. These comparisons suggest that the responding agencies represent those for which the problem of gun violence is most salient. Note, however, that the findings may not generalize as well to agencies in smaller cities with less serious gun violence problems.
I begin with an examination of selected gun laws in the study cities and enforcement activities related to these laws. Federal and state laws prohibit certain categories of people from gun ownership (e.g. convicted felons), and federal law, as well as some state laws, requires that people purchasing guns from firearms dealers (who must be licensed by the Federal Government and possibly by state or local governments) undergo background checks by law enforcement to confirm their eligibility. This survey examined selected state and local laws that go beyond these basic gun controls, with an emphasis on laws that may enhance the ability of police to attack the supply of guns to offenders.
Only 31 percent of large city agencies reported that their state or locality required people to obtain a permit to purchase a firearm. Further, roughly three‐quarters of the local agencies in jurisdictions requiring permits did not have authority or discretion over the granting of those permits. About one‐third of agencies (35 percent) operated in a state or locality that required registration of firearms with law enforcement, and 40 percent were in a jurisdiction that either prohibited carrying of a concealed handgun (4 percent) or gave police discretionary control over granting permits to carry a concealed handgun (36 percent). 38 percent of agencies indicated that their state or locality required background checks for private gun sales, while 29 percent reported that their state or locality required gun owners to report losses or thefts of firearms. Finally, 21 percent of the agencies had legal authority to inspect licensed gun dealers (OJJDP, 1999).
This paper relied on agencies’ reports of gun laws based on the belief that law enforcement professionals would be knowledgeable about their state and local firearms laws and the complexities and nuances of how those laws operate. Even allowing for some respondent error, however, the data suggest that most urban police operate in contexts where gun laws are relatively limited.
This study represents the first national survey examination of gun violence reduction efforts by local police in the US, and it provides a number of insights that may be useful in guiding future research and policy development. One caveat to the study is that it is based on large US cities, so the results may not generalize well to other nations or types of jurisdictions. Further, the study could not provide detailed information on how the agencies were implementing their strategies. Care should also be taken in judging the effectiveness of strategies based on these data, as they reflect the impressions of practitioners rather than evidence from scientific assessments. Further, a notable minority of agencies using many of the strategies did not provide effectiveness ratings.
Similarly, there are substantial gaps in the enforcement of many gun laws. Agencies operating in states and localities with gun registration, regulation of private sales, theft/loss reporting requirements, and regulation of licensed gun dealers engage in limited efforts to enforce or use these laws, despite their potential to enhance law enforcement efforts directed at disrupting illegal gun markets. In some of these jurisdictions, state police agencies may take the primary role in enforcing these laws. Nonetheless, heavier involvement by local police agencies could perhaps improve the rigor, comprehensiveness, and effectiveness of supply‐side efforts. Resource limitations appear to be a significant impediment to better enforcement of gun laws for many police agencies. Others may include weak or vaguely worded laws that make investigation and prosecution of illegal sales difficult or a lack of significant penalties for violations like straw purchasing. Policy changes, including a reprioritization of gun enforcement efforts and better cooperative and data sharing arrangements among local, state, and federal agencies, may also be necessary to facilitate these efforts. These issues warrant greater attention in future research and policy discussions (PERF, 2010).
All of this suggests there may be a need for state and local officials – including prosecutors, judges, and legislators, as well as police – to treat gun violations of all sorts with greater priority and severity. Cooperation between police and state prosecutors to prioritize gun offenders is a helpful step in this regard and one that police often rated as highly effective.
To conclude, police are using a wide variety of strategies to reduce gun violence, and there are many that they find to be effective. These efforts could be intensified and strengthened in various ways that could further enhance the effectiveness of police in suppressing gun crime. However, the success of these efforts will also be tied to the resources and emphasis given to gun crime by other local, state, and federal officials. These issues, and others identified in this paper, may provide a fruitful basis for future research on police approaches to reducing gun violence.
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