To follow up on Tuesday’s Daily Report about increases in homicides and gun crimes, PERF spoke with three police leaders and two senior ATF officials about how they are addressing increases in gun violence.

LAPD Chief Michel Moore

At the federal level, I’m hopeful that with the new administration, the ongoing support we receive from ATF and our federal partners on federal prosecution and task forces will remain and strengthen. I also hope we will see some movement on the parts and manufacturing of ghost guns, because they are now 4 out of every 10 guns we recover. They are in the hands of the people who are unable to otherwise possess a gun lawfully in the state of California. As a prohibited possessor, they’re likely involved in other violent crimes.

We have major initiatives with our Crime Gun Intelligence Center. We’re focusing on the casings, crime guns, and understanding the path those crime guns take. Pursuing that as part of a task force is critical for us.

Locally, we have good district attorney prosecution and state prosecution. I also want to ensure our federal prosecutors stay focused on the more serious violators. Our U.S. Attorney, Nick Hanna, recently resigned, and he had an avid focus on gun violence. We’re in an interim period, but I’m sure the number two will continue this focus.

What’s hurting us is that during COVID, federal courts just aren’t moving forward. These offenders are not being held accountable.

As we go into 2021, it’s going to be critical that we get the criminal justice system back on its game to create a deterrent with consequences.

We made 35% more gun arrests this last year. We saw a 58% increase in the number of guns recovered from vehicle stops, even though we had a 25% overall reduction in vehicle stops. That tells me there are a lot of people out there with a lot of guns.

Awareness is key. We’re going to continue stressing the importance of consequences for people committing gun violence and carrying guns.

There have been conversations about gun buybacks. We see that as an awareness issue, as opposed to a deterrent that suppresses gun violence.

Every social institution has been impacted by COVID. There’s no one thing that drives crime, and there’s no one thing that solves crime. But the whole collective family of strategies have been either disrupted, diminished, or eliminated because of COVID. At this time a year ago, we had one of the lowest levels of crime, including more than a decade of less than 300 homicides per year. Shooting violence was also going down year after year.

In 2020 we had 92 additional homicides, which is a 38% increase. We had more than 380 additional shooting victims. That is similar to what we’ve seen in New York City, Chicago, and all the major cities. I think the underpinnings of society’s safety net are broken. We have to see how we can mend that, and also how we can work around that.


Oklahoma City Chief Wade Gourley

The biggest issue when it comes to gun violence in Oklahoma is accessibility. We have some of the most lax gun laws in the country. Anybody can carry any type of weapon without any type of permit. Any guns that we seize are related to some criminal matter. If you have somebody walking down the street with a rifle, unless they’re convicted of a felony or intoxicated, there’s not much we can do as far as getting that weapon off the streets.

We recovered 2,509 firearms in 2020, which is significantly more than we recovered in 2019. Those are all firearms we know were involved in some type of criminal case.

Starting in 2019, we changed our approach to gun crime holistically, from investigations, to patrol, to our gang unit. The first thing we did was look at how we were processing our firearms evidence in our lab, with some help from the ATF. Last spring they brought in their NIBIN truck, and we got some more of our folks up and running on that.

This focus started with the murder of a two-year-old girl named Riah Thomas in December 2019. That case had been unsolved. In early summer we made a traffic stop and, through NIBIN, we were able to identify the firearm that killed that little girl. We ultimately solved that case.

Last March we disbanded our Gang Enforcement Unit. We wanted to focus on violent crime in general, so we created a unit called the Violent Crime Apprehension Team. That unit is partnered with analysts, so at any time of the day, they have access to an analyst. They respond to any shooting where someone has been hit, and they’ll immediately start the process of identifying the shooter. That’s been very helpful, and they work very closely with our investigators and patrol officers. We’re more likely to get an apprehension because we’re getting the investigative process started right away.

For most of the shootings we’re working, we’re either identifying or apprehending a suspect within about 24-48 hours. We’ve been very successful in getting them out to the scene, having them work closely with investigators and analysts, and identifying those suspects quickly.

When I became chief in July 2019, I realized we had a lot of cases where charges had been filed on suspects, there were warrants for them, and those warrants were just sitting there. Now when investigators work a case on these violent crimes, that information is turned over to that apprehension team, and they go out and start tracking these folks down. We work very closely with the U.S. Marshals Service, and I have two officers assigned to their task force.

Our U.S. Attorney’s office has started aggressive enforcement of any domestic violence incident that involves a firearm. That’s been a big help, because in Oklahoma a lot of our aggravated assaults and firearms-related crimes are domestic violence-related. We have some of the highest rates of domestic violence in the country. Those federal partnerships have really helped us.

People are cooped up more during the pandemic. A lot of our homicides last year were domestic-driven. I think that the stress of the pandemic, maybe losing a job, has driven a lot of those numbers.


Tucson Assistant Chief Kevin Hall

We’re currently undergoing a complete revision of our strategy on gun crimes. It’s something we’ve been working on for the past 18 months.

Arizona is a wide open state as far as firearms and gun carry. It’s legal to sell firearms at a yard sale here. The gun culture is very, very strong, and a lot of people have a lot of guns. It’s not unusual to come across guns daily in your traffic stops and consensual stops.

Knowing that, we have decided to take an evidence-based approach. We looked at the different strategies that have research behind them – things like hot spots policing, focused deterrence, and place-based interventions. It’s all based on two overarching concepts: The vast majority of the crime is committed by a small number of people, and the vast majority of crime is committed in a small number of geographic locations. There’s a lot of research to support that idea of crime being concentrated among both people and places, so that’s what we set up as our strategy moving forward. This strategy is still in process and not fully implemented yet.

For the past two years, we’ve tried to become a NIBIN Crime Gun Intelligence Center. We haven’t made it yet, and we’re going to continue to try. We were just recognized as a Crime Gun Intelligence Unit, which we hope is a step in the right direction.

Another overarching concept is the public health approach that crime is contagious, almost like a pathological disease. With that in mind, we are building a social network analysis program that will link people to places to guns to cars to phones to addresses.  

Like Oklahoma City, we disbanded our gang unit and turned them into a gun violence reduction unit. It’s not about the gangs as much as groups’ social networks, based on the theory that crime, particularly violent gun crime, is contagious among those groups. Once we determine the networks, we know who is most at risk of being a victim and/or a shooter.

Using that, we have put in place a hot spot policing strategy based on what we’re finding through our analysis. We’re in the process of building a focused deterrence model, where we can engage at-risk individuals, where we don’t have enough to arrest, but we know they’re involved in violent activity.

Our NIBIN center is the biggest in southern Arizona. We work regionally with our partners around us in our county. That’s where we want to have a robust social network analysis unit, with more than just one analyst.

We just inked the MOUs to become a pilot city for a place network investigations model through the University of Cincinnati, with Professor Robin Engel. They’re networking locations where we find crime concentrations.

Through all this we’re trying to tie a small number of offenders in a small number of places together, so we can thoughtfully target our most violent offenders.

Finally, we’ve reengineered how we handle violent crimes, particularly gun crimes. We have a tactical investigations model, where a specialized group of patrol officers, who work both plainclothes and in uniform, depending on their mission of the day, go out on every shooting, whether it’s a nonfatal or a homicide, and work next to the homicide detectives on that case. They know the streets better than the detectives. They know nicknames, who is running in that particular area, and who belongs to what complexes. We’ve given them special investigative and social media training so they can work those aspects right next to the detectives. When the detectives go home, the tactical investigators continue working. Then they hand it off to the next shift of tactical investigators who come on. The case never stops getting worked.


ATF Acting Director Regina Lombardo

Last year we saw over 40 million lawful gun sales in the country. It’s the highest number ever, and the highest number of first-time buyers. We believe it’s due to a lot of fear and uncertainty. When there’s a change of administration, especially when a Democratic administration comes into power, we see gun sales go up. There’s fear that there will be changes in the laws about gun possession. We’re familiar with the ups and downs there.

Los Angeles has been hit hard with ghost guns. California is probably the number one state, but we are seeing that across the country. Federal law allows individuals to make unserialized firearms for private use. That’s the law. Our difficulty is that we don’t regulate the parts. These kits are individual parts of a firearm. We only regulate a completed weapon, and identifying when it is completed is the difficult issue we have.

The regulatory authority limits us, but we are working to be able to use some of our regulatory authority by refining and modernizing the existing regulatory definition of a firearm frame or receiver. What that means is that we’re looking at the definition of what a firearm is. There are two laws: the Gun Control Act of 1968 and the National Firearms Act of 1934. The law hasn’t kept up with the modernization and new technology in firearms development. We’ve been working with the Department of Justice, both in the previous administration and the new administration, on trying to redefine a firearm frame or receiver. That will help us be able to find a way to charge these ghost guns.

If Congress passed a law, that would be something ATF would enforce. It would help with the situation. But right now we’re trying to figure out a way to change that existing definition.

We’re seeing ghost guns in our NIBIN hits. We’re seeing them used in a lot more crimes. More of those guns come from states with stricter gun laws.

It’s hard to give statistics on how many ghost guns there are, because most police departments don’t send them to ATF’s National Tracing Center, either because there’s no serial number on it or they think it’s just a piece. We’ve now said that we want to start capturing this information to provide good statistics on trends. We need police departments to trace those and send them to us so we can start tracking that information.


ATF Assistant Director Tom Chittum

Ghost guns, or what we call privately-made firearms, are a complex subject. As an organization we remain apolitical and enforce the laws that Congress gives us. It’s tempting to believe that there’s a simple definition of a firearm, but the reality is that these are some nuanced areas of law.

Late last year ATF served a search warrant on Polymer80, which is by far the dominant supplier of kits that are used in ghost guns. The businesses that supply these kits are really a grey area of the law.

As the director pointed out, we saw a record number of lawful gun sales last year. We saw a contemporaneous increase in illegal acquisitions, including gun store burglaries, privately-made firearm recoveries, and straw purchases. It’s hard to identify the root causes that drove those increases, but it’s interesting that there was a corresponding increase in illegal acquisitions.

I think you have to use both short- and long-term strategies. When bodies are hitting the floor, you don’t have the luxury of saying, “We’ll get to it in a year.” There are some short-term things you can do, including increased concentration in areas and aggressively targeting prohibited possession of firearms.

There are also long-term strategies. Everyone recognizes that these crimes are committed by a relatively small group of people, and we can increasingly target those people. We tell everyone to first prioritize firearms enforcement. Create specialized units, collaborate with ATF, and, where it’s warranted, pursue federal prosecution. Make sure you’re engaging with prosecutors so they treat firearms arrests with appropriate seriousness


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.