June 18, 2022

Tackling Gun Violence … from the Halls of Congress to the Streets of our Cities


Dear PERF members,

Mass shootings like the one in Uvalde, Texas on May 24th, when 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School were shot and killed, understandably receive a lot of attention. It’s gut-wrenching to see the mass killing of schoolchildren in Texas or grocery shoppers in Buffalo. But just this past Monday, a 9-year-old and her mother were shot and killed by the mother’s ex-boyfriend in Houston, and a 14-year-old was killed the day before her eighth grade graduation in Milwaukee. On Tuesday, a man shot and killed a woman during a domestic dispute in St. Louis County, Missouri, then shot and killed himself after being pursued by police. And two police officers were gunned down in El Monte, California while responding to a call about a possible stabbing.

On Wednesday, a 13-year-old accidentally shot and killed one of his best friends in Dallas, and five people were killed and six injured in shootings in Chicago. On Thursday, three people were killed by a shooter at an Episcopal church in Vestavia Hills, Alabama, and one person died and several were hospitalized after a shooting at a bar in Oakland. And yesterday, a 2-year-old was killed and his mother was injured in a shooting in West Memphis, Arkansas, and a man was shot and killed in Indianapolis. If those five days were anywhere close to typical, over 300 people in the United States died by suicide using a gun.

This is what gun violence in America looks like. While the mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde may receive the most attention, they represent a small percentage of the gun violence police chiefs and sheriffs across the country face every day. Four years ago, PERF held a national meeting to hear from police executives and others about gun violence in their communities and possible strategies to address the problem. That meeting resulted in this 2019 publication: Reducing Gun Violence: What Works, and What Can Be Done Now.

The report details the four distinct types of gun violence our country faces: suicides, “everyday” gun violence, domestic violence, and mass shootings. And it lays out nine recommendations for addressing all four types of gun violence. Importantly, the recommendations are directed not so much at Congress but at all the various entities that must play a role here, including law enforcement, prosecutors, other government agencies, researchers, firearms dealers, even individual gun owners.

I recently circulated our 2019 recommendations among members of the PERF Board of Directors to see if they thought our ideas were still relevant in the current environment. There was strong consensus around the nine existing recommendations, and Board members suggested adding a recommendation aimed at restricting access to ghost guns, which are a growing concern in many areas.

PERF’S 2019 Recommendations for Reducing Gun Violence

  1. We can prevent future killings by imposing certainty of punishment for illegal possession of a firearm.
  2. Keep guns out of the hands of people who are legally prohibited from owning them.
  3. Every gun owner must secure guns in the home. And guns should be removed from homes where they pose an extreme risk.
  4. Implement evidence-based policing strategies to target the small number of offenders who are responsible for most gun violence.
  5. Ballistics technology is extremely powerful. We need to fully utilize it. Connecting guns to their users helps to solve crimes and prevent future offenses.
  6. To reduce the carnage, limit the availability of high-powered firearms. Limit the capacity of ammunition magazines to 10 rounds.
  7. Stop guns from entering the black market.
  8. Assess threats to prevent mass shootings.
  9. Expand gun violence research.

Last Sunday, a bipartisan group of 20 Senators announced a framework for new federal legislation to reduce gun violence. While the details still need to be ironed out and voted on, this action is significant, both substantively and symbolically. It would break 30 years of legislative gridlock on guns and demonstrate that our elected leaders can come together and find some common ground when it comes to combating gun violence.

Not all nine of PERF’s recommendations are addressed in the Senate agreement, which reflects a simple reality: Congress alone cannot solve the problem of gun violence. Yes, on matters of national policy, such as limiting high-powered firearms and strengthening background checks, Congress has the power to act. But for the myriad other strategies and approaches that are needed to address gun violence in its totality, it will take the efforts of many different individuals and entities.

  • To establish certainty of punishment for gun crimes, we need local police solving crimes, district attorneys prosecuting cases, and judges imposing appropriate sentences.
  • To keep guns away from those who shouldn’t have them, we need gun owners to take responsibility for securing their firearms in their homes.
  • To keep guns from entering the black market, we need firearms dealers to ensure the physical security of their facilities and police and prosecutors to focus on investigating straw purchases and other illegal gun trafficking schemes.
  • To connect crime guns to their users, we need local police and ATF working closely to fully utilize the latest technology.
  • And to implement evidence-based policing strategies, we need local police and researchers working together to share information and evaluate new approaches.

When a tragedy like Sandy Hook or Las Vegas or Buffalo or Uvalde or … [fill in the blank] takes place, people naturally turn to Congress for solutions. And finally, through the bipartisan framework emerging in the Senate, Congress is acting – albeit in a relatively modest fashion.

But the reality is that no one entity alone can tackle a problem as vast and complex as gun violence. We can’t put all our hopes in the hands of 535 elected representatives in Washington, DC, when there are steps that can be taken right away at the local, regional, and state levels. Police chiefs, prosecutors, gun owners and dealers, families and friends of those experiencing mental illness, researchers – all of these people and others can, and must, be part of the solution.

I am hopeful that by working together and approaching gun violence from many different angles, as our 2019 report recommends, we can save lives and strengthen communities.

Before signing off, I want to mention some positive news: President Biden’s nominee to serve as ATF director, Steven Dettelbach, appears to have enough support to be confirmed by the Senate. Several of the recommendations in PERF’s 2019 report involve ATF, so it would be helpful to have a permanent ATF director to champion these and other efforts. It’s a shame that it has been so difficult to confirm ATF directors over the past 16 years. I hope this is a sign of change and that it will be easier to confirm directors moving forward.