East Coast mayors discuss illegal guns

February 13, 2008 6:59:29 PM PST
In a new tactic against urban crime, the mayors of several East Coast cities, including New York, plan to launch a database that will allow them to share information on known gun offenders.

The database, expected to be operational later this year, will pool data from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives with information collected by local agencies, including ballistics information and intelligence gathered from debriefings of gun offenders.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon and other urban leaders said Wednesday that the first-of-its-kind database will make it more difficult for illegal gun dealers to do business throughout the Interstate 95 corridor.

"Violent crime, particularly gun crime, is not just a local problem," Dixon said. "It's a national problem."

Dixon and Bloomberg made the announcement at a summit that brought together 11 mayors along with police chiefs and other representatives from cities including Boston, Philadelphia, Newark, N.J., and Richmond, Va.

"Every city here today, and many others, will have the opportunity to tap into this database and contribute to it," Bloomberg said.

Bloomberg, a possible independent candidate for president, said the federal government has not paid adequate attention to the need for new laws or programs to curb the use of illegal guns. He noted that 34 Americans are slain with guns every day.

"This is exactly the kind of system, incidentally, that the federal government should be building for cities, but since they don't seem to be doing it, we are doing it on our own," Bloomberg said. "Right now, cities are fighting largely in isolation."

Bloomberg said the Mayors Against Illegal Guns Coalition, which he founded along with Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, sent a questionnaire to presidential candidates asking what they would do to get illegal guns off the street, but only John Edwards and Ron Paul responded.

"I would want to vote for somebody that said, concretely, how they would improve the safety on our streets," Bloomberg said. "I wouldn't want to vote for somebody that's just ducking the issue."

Bloomberg and Dixon said the cost of developing the database would be negligible because their cities would not need to hire new police or number-crunchers to do the work.

David Kennedy, director of Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said the database was "a brilliant idea" because ATF trace data alone often does not identify possible gun traffickers. Traces from the ATF frequently go cold once a gun is legally sold for the first time, he said.

"It's pretty common to match firearms trace information with local knowledge about participants in gun crime and discover, for example, that particular sources of illegal firearms are dealing with a particular drug crew," Kennedy said. "Neither federal authorities alone nor local authorities alone would be able to figure that out. You need both kinds of data."

Following the announcement, the mayors held a summit to swap ideas and hear from experts on crime. Also prominent in the talks was Trenton, N.J., Mayor Douglas Palmer.

Trenton, like Baltimore, saw an increase in homicides last year, while New York has seen significant decreases over the past several years. Baltimore's 2007 homicide total of 282 was its highest since 1999.

However, the pace of homicides slowed during the second half of 2007, a development that criminologists attributed in part to the city's renewed focus on illegal guns and repeat violent offenders.

Dixon said she looked to New York to get the illegal gun effort off the ground. Baltimore has created a gun registry that tracks offenders and a task force to coordinate the enforcement of gun laws. She traveled to New York last fall to meet with Bloomberg.

As the mayors announced the database, they were flanked by two tables with 64 illegal guns that were seized over the weekend with information developed by the city's gun task force.

According to police, an informant led task force officers to a gun dealer after the dealer sold a handgun illegally, and a search of the dealer's home in Elkton, just off I-95, near the Delaware and Pennsylvania borders, revealed 20 handguns, 48 shotguns and an assault rifle, nearly all of which were seized.