Experts back NYC's link of gun laws, lower crime


Associated Press

Posted on January 23, 2013 at 4:06 PM

Updated Wednesday, Jan 23 at 5:33 PM

NEW YORK (AP) — New York City's mayor is fighting for tighter U.S. gun control by repeating that the city's historic crime lows have been achieved because strict gun laws have been strictly enforced. The top U.S. gun lobby, the National Rifle Association, has dismissed his efforts as a publicity stunt and said last week that tighter laws would have no effect on public safety and crime.

But leading criminologists say Bloomberg is right, for the most part. While acknowledging that policing isn't the only factor in reducing gun violence, they cite the all-time low number of murders in a city where most people are killed with guns.

"New York is showing the way for some good strategies in policing," said Harold Pollack, co-director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab.

Bloomberg is leading the charge but is backed by his Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a coalition that now has more than 800 mayors from around the country. He and the group have been especially vocal since last month's Connecticut school shooting, where a gunman with a legally purchased, high-powered rifle shot dead six adults and 20 children just 6 and 7 years old.

President Barack Obama last week announced a package of gun control proposals that would require the approval of Congress, plus executive actions that he is taking through the power of his office. He has called the Connecticut shooting the worst day of his presidency, and gun control has become one of the top priorities in his second term.

In states where pro-gun sentiment runs deep, many officials are pushing to loosen gun laws rather than tighten them, arguing that law-abiding citizens should have the right to be armed to defend themselves against shooters.

In Texas, gunfire at a Houston college Tuesday prompted new calls for allowing concealed handgun license holders to carry their weapons into college buildings and classrooms as a measure of self-defense. Texas lawmakers already are considering a bill that allows concealed handguns in classrooms, and the shooting at Lone Star College had advocates looking to rally more support Wednesday.

State Sen. Brian Birdwell, a Republican, who filed the Campus Personal Protection Act last week, called the Lone Star College shooting a prime example for the need for his bill.

"It affirms what we know is true: When you disarm law-abiding citizens that we ought to trust, we make them defenseless," Birdwell said.

Like Obama, Bloomberg is reaching out for public support in the face of opposition from gun lobbyists and many gun owners and skepticism from many in Congress.

"The more of us that we have together, the better we'll be able to make the case to Congress why sensible gun laws have to be on the books and have to be enforced," Bloomberg said last week in Washington. "We just cannot continue to have 33 people a day killed in the United States with guns, and over 40 people commit suicide with guns every single day."

New York state had strict laws even before legislators passed the nation's toughest last week. And city regulations augment them. For example, in New York City, gun permits must be renewed every three years; there were no restrictions in other parts of the state until the new state law. Obtaining a permit to carry a pistol or a revolver is incredibly difficult, and carrying a rifle or shotgun in the city is illegal. Out-of-state permits to carry a gun aren't recognized in the city.

A city gun offender registry was created in which officers track serious gun convicts, not unlike sex offenders.

But the laws didn't start working until police effectively started enforcing them, said Franklin Zimring, author of "The City that Became Safe: New York's Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control."

Most of the murders in the city are committed with guns — that hasn't changed. But policing has. Under Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, the department formed a firearms suppression unit in 2006 that identifies traffickers and uses undercover officers to buy and arrest them.

Crime has dropped almost across the board in the decade Bloomberg has been in office. There were 418 killings last year for a population of 8 million people, the lowest number since reliable records were kept starting in 1963. In 1990, New York City had an all-time high of 2,245 killings.

"Is a lot of that effective street gun policing? Yes," Zimring said.

But the criminologists cautioned against giving the city and police department too much credit. Other factors, such as the economy and education, play a role in the rise and fall of crime.

"Gun control has a mitigating effect on the crime rate, but you can't say it's one of the major factors; it's more complicated than that," said Jamie Chandler, a political science professor at Hunter College in New York.

Criminologists John Eterno and Eli Silverman argue in their book "The Crime Numbers Game" that crime statistics are manipulated. And before 2012, the number of gunshot victims remained relatively flat for the previous decade, hovering around 1,800 per year. It was about 1,600 last year, the lowest since comparable records started being kept in 1994.

"The murder rate goes down, and shootings are stable, so there is also a question of whether medical care has improved," said Jeffrey Fagan, a criminologist and law professor at Columbia University.

"I endorse Bloomberg's campaign to end gun violence," Fagan added. "I just wish it were more successful than it is."

Mark Kleiman, a professor who studies crime policy at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that by enforcing laws, authorities in New York are keeping people off the streets who are more likely to be committing serious crime.

"There are clear consequences for having an illegal gun," he said.

But an NRA spokesman noted that crime has been dropping in many cities nationwide for decades, regardless of the gun laws.

"I think if you look at the overall violent crime rate that the FBI rate disseminates annually, it's been decreasing steadily nationwide over the last few decades," said spokesman Andrew Arulanandam.


Associated Press writer Colleen Long contributed.