Summit presents data and a call to action on guns

After Newtown, experts convened by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health take on gun violence

hopkins gun symposium 3

Panelists at the Johns Hopkins Gun Policy Summit, from left, John Vernick, Anthony Braga, Pete Gagliardi and Garen Wintemute.

Photo by: John Bloch

In Annapolis and Washington, the debate over what to do about guns in the wake of the Newtown mass shooting has gotten tangled in the viability of legislation addressing the emotional and politically charged issue.

But physicians and public health experts – meeting in a Gun Policy Summit yesterday and today at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health – framed gun violence as an urgent public health issue, grounded in rigorous research.

Their focus on measures that could keep guns out of the hands of high-risk individuals points to a wide range of approaches, not all of which require an act of Congress.

Just 1% of gun dealers, for example, are responsible for 57% of guns traced to crime, according to Jon Vernick, an associate professor and associate chair in Health Policy and Management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“How many states in the U.S. require that the person who cuts your hair is licensed? The answer is all of them. How many states require a gun dealer license? The answer is 17,” Vernick said, during yesterday’s session.

“Outrageous” Restrictions on Research

The gathering of more than a dozen experts in gun violence, including law enforcement officers and policymakers as well as epidemiologists, reviewed data from research involving everything from suicide and domestic partner violence to age-based gun possession restrictions.

New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who opened the summit, called for more such evidence-based study and condemned as “egregious” and “outrageous” national restrictions on funding for gun violence research.

“Congress has severely restricted the scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from studying the epidemic of gun violence and they’ve put similar restrictions on the scientists at the National Institutes of Health,” Bloomberg said.

“Congress has no business dictating what public health issues scientists can and should study,” he said. “What are they afraid of?”

The Private Sale Problem

Many of yesterday’s speakers had war stories from the world of law enforcement, as investigators struggle to pursue criminals by tracing crime guns’ purchasers.

Presenter Pete Gagliardi, a former officer for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), detailed a example from Chicago where cartridge casings collected from a crime scene were matched – eight years later – to the gun they came from. The gun was finally traced to the shooter’s girlfriend who had bought it on his behalf.

Data on display, at the John Hopkins Gun Policy Summit. (Photo by John Bloch)

Data on display at the John Hopkins Gun Policy Summit. (Photo by John Bloch)

Today the shooter “is where he belongs, serving the rest of his life in the Illinois Correctional System,” Gagliardi said. “That’s a good day. It doesn’t always work that way.”

The issue facing law enforcement officers is that after a gun dealer sells a firearm, subsequent private sales of that same gun are difficult or impossible to track.

“Approximately 40% of all firearms transactions in the United States involve private sales,” said Dr. Garen J. Wintemute, Director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis.

Thanks to the lack of a paper trail, secondhand transactions are especially attractive to those who plan on committing crimes using the weapon.

“If you ask incarcerated felons who committed a crime, ‘where did you get your gun?’ 80% of those criminal transactions occur in the secondary market, or private party transfers,” Wintemute said.

Zip Code Hopping Pistol

While an officer can potentially track a firearm over a handful of private party transfers, occasionally a gun can move so quickly that it gets lost in the shuffle.

Dr. Anthony A. Braga, Professor of Evidence-Based Criminology in the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University, had just such a story about a zip code-hopping pistol with a mean streak.

“There is this legendary firearm that was recovered in a crime in the city of Boston,” Braga said. “Boston PD did the ballistic imaging … and it came back to 14 other crimes in four cities in two states in a one year period: an incredible amount of harm for just one firearm.”

A Modest Proposal?

Vernick, focusing on the problem of rogue gun vendors, argued that state as well as federal laws requiring vendors to be licensed would give law enforcement more leverage.

“If states are able to inspect those gun dealers and identify problems they can pull the state license without having to wait for the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to do something about it,” Vernick said.

Some of the shotguns collected last month by police at a "goods for guns" exchange in Northeast Baltimore.

Some of the shotguns collected last month at a “goods for guns” exchange in Northeast Baltimore. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

Maryland is one such state that requires a state-issued license to sell firearms, but nearby states like West Virginia and North Carolina do not have the same requirement. The weaker laws in these states allow guns to be easily purchased and trafficked into Maryland, he said.

Other policy approaches suggested by summit presenters included:

Beefing up the ATF’s budget, increasing penalties on those caught trafficking guns illegally, removing obstacles to the effective investigation of gun trafficking crimes, and furthering research that evaluates the efficacy of strategies designed to keep guns out of the wrong hands.

Bloomberg’s Suggestions

During the summit yesterday, Mayor Bloomberg, a Hopkins graduate and founder of  Mayors Against Illegal Guns, released his seven suggested measures to reduce gun violence.

• Require background checks for all sales including private sales at gun shows and online

• Make gun trafficking a federal crime.

• Limit the availability of military-style weapons and high-capacity magazines.

• Order all federal agencies to submit relevant data to the National Gun Background Check Database.

(The above measures would require support from Congress and the White House, but there are others, Bloomberg said, that President Obama could implement on his own:)

• Prioritize prosecution of convicted criminals who provide false personal information during gun purchase background checks.

• Update the national gun background check database.

• Appoint a head to the ATF.

• Stop support of the so-called Tiahrt Amendment, which bars the ATF from releasing information from its firearms trace database to anyone other than a law enforcement agency or prosecutor in connection with a criminal investigation.
To watch the summit proceedings live online

Organizers noted that the research presented at the summit is going to be published in book form in a couple of weeks, in a volume to be published by the Johns Hopkins University Press.




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  • ushanellore

    Does the school of public health know what has been written into the Affordable Care Act Obama’s policy triumph?  Unbeknownst to  the common folks, but known to NRA’s stool pigeons in Congress the legislation muzzles doctors and researchers.  It makes it illegal for doctors to collect and document the particulars about gun violence.  It short shrifts statistical evidence gathering against the gun lobby.  If you can’t get the facts about when, where and how the gun violence occurred, who were the perpetrators, what kinds of guns were used, how many people died, how many bullets were used, how much damage was inflicted, if it is taboo to document and use the answers collected for research and medical papers then we would have no facts to counter the fat cat NRA, which once used to be for sensible gun control laws, now is no more than a well heeled thug, out to intimidate the anti gun lobby with boisterous calls for more guns and more all sorts of guns for all sorts of people–if it is taboo to counter the NRA with scientific facts, as per the NRA sponsored corollary buried deep inside the Affordable Care Act– then of what use meetings like these?  Question is: does the Bloomberg School realize that the JHU praised Affordable Care Act has such language because the feeling at the time, among the Democrats, was if the vociferous pro gun bullies were alienated then the ACA itself could be in jeopardy?  Welcome to bought and sold America.  Disgusting!  And do you know the name of the senator responsible for hobbling researchers by dancing to the NRA–Harry Reid himself, was the august one, so servile to the NRA, that he saw it fit to excoriate a health care law by defanging doctors so gun owners and members of the NRA may be empowered.  And now this snake Reid sings a different tune.  Shame! 

    From CNN

    Last year, the NRA used
    its influence in Florida to push through legislation that would punish
    doctors if they asked patients whether they owned a gun.

    And buried inside
    President Barack Obama’s signature health care legislation is a
    little-known provision that prevents the government and health insurers
    from asking about gun ownership.

    The NRA says it is simply ensuring that taxpayer money isn’t being used to promote a political agenda.

    “If gun control groups
    … (and) individuals want to further their research, we’re not saying
    they shouldn’t be able to do it,” NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam told
    CNN. “We’re just saying they shouldn’t be using public funds to do it.”

    But public health experts say it’s all part of an attempt by the NRA-led pro-gun lobby to hamstring lawmakers.

    “If a bunch of people do
    research and generate solid evidence that suggests firearms policy
    should be reformed and either firearms or people who used them should be
    regulated in new ways, (if I’m a gun-rights advocate,) I’m not going to
    like that,” said Dr. Garen Wintemute, head of the violence prevention
    research program at the University of California at Davis.

    “So, I’ll simply prevent
    the evidence from being collected in the first place. It’s a brilliant
    strategy, and (the gun lobby) succeeded.”

  • cwals99

    As someone who attended this symposium I will start by saying the problem with guns and violence start at the top of the income ladder and the ever worsening of crime and gun violence mirrors the deepening and broadening of poverty.  Wealth inequity in America is directly connected to a massive movement of money from the lower/middle-class to the top through corporate fraud across all business sectors with no justice to recovery that money….this is what causes social unrest.  So, as I told Hopkins, it is the bad guys at the top who are the problem so if you do not make them a priority then the gun problems at the lower end of the ladder will not be fixed with these regressive policies.

    Hopkins has a history of policy that advances the needs of the establishment rather than that of most people and this is indeed what is seen in their gun policy.  Many people want the 3 major policy changes we hear toted as Obama’s plan, which is Hopkins plan….ban assault weapons and ammunition, background checks and licensed dealers.  That is all reasonable and desired.  It is the other 20 policies that dictate ever regressive and repressive policy that is troubling and should be shouted down.  As one of the experts from Australia who spoke on the 2nd day said…..we in Australia develop policy to change behavior, we do not develop policy to criminalize people.  That is why Australia is #1 in social justice and America is #1 in incarceration and criminalization.  Hopkins’ policy follows this trend.

    I am not a gun supporter and want the basic issues met, but I will not sit and watch as another War on Drugs approach is unleashed that incarcerates another entire generation of poor people and in the case with guns you will see the working and middle-class effected as well.  Another problem is how they categorize high-risk people….as everyone just about. If you have a substance abuse record or are caught fighting among many other things you could be told no to gun ownership.  It is arbitrary as with the definition of ‘felon’.  A homeless person who is a victim of zero tolerance ends up with a felony for loitering and being poor while an investment banker steals billions of dollars and isn’t charged being a felon with a gun.

    We do not want this issue used against people, we want to protect all people!!

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