Gun control policies should focus on restricting access to firearms for dangerous individuals or repeat offenders rather than making guns illegal, a prominent gun policy scholar told a group of public health students on Tuesday.
Daniel W. Webster, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, touched on Baltimore police tactics and the Jan. 8 mass shooting in Tucson, Ariz., where six people were killed and 13 wounded, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
Too often, he said, the national debate on gun control divides into groups — those claiming that guns are not responsible for people's violent actions against those who say there are far too many guns available in America.
"This discussion has gotten us to where we are today, which is nowhere," said Webster, who has served as an informal adviser to Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III. "We get in these silly sorts of discussions about guns are good, guns are bad."
Instead, Webster and his colleagues have used crime data to try to determine which people are most likely to commit violent gun crimes. He recommended several policies to restrict those individuals' gun purchases, including prohibiting people convicted of misdemeanors from purchasing guns until they have been crime-free for a number of years and increasing the minimum purchasing age.
Thorough background checks like the ones conducted in New York, he believes, would most likely have prevented Jared Loughner, the 22-year-old accused of carrying out the Tucson shooting, from buying a gun. According to news reports, Loughner had been charged with possessing drug paraphernalia.
"It really just comes down to, let's define dangerous people," he said.
At the local and state level, Webster praised Gov. Martin O'Malley's push to equally punish violent crimes committed with "long guns," such as a shotgun or rifle, and those committed with handguns, a measure high on the governor's legislative agenda this year. Individuals convicted of committing a violent crime with handguns must serve at least five years without parole in prison, a penalty that does not currently apply to those who use long guns.
In Baltimore, the drumbeat sounding the city's aggressive pursuit of "bad guys with guns," a formulation used by Bealefeld to describe repeat gun offenders, has only gotten louder in recent months and with the start of the new legislative session. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has said she will lobby the state legislature this year for provisions that would make it a felony to possess a gun illegally.
In an interview after the lecture, Webster credited the city's focus on disrupting the gun market rather than on petty drug arrests with reducing killings and nonfatal shootings in Baltimore. In 2010, the city saw a 6 percent drop in homicides compared with 2009.
Webster said he regularly attends the city's "GunStat" meetings, gatherings where law enforcement officials discuss strategies to reduce gun violence.
"We tried to police our way out of the drug problems, and where did it get us?" he asked.
By focusing more on illegal gun offenders, Webster argued, "You're simply saying, 'If you're caught with a gun, we're going to be on you.' The more you can take guns out of the equation, the fewer shootings you're going to have."
Among the two dozen or so Hopkins students and staff who attended the talk were those who work at ground zero of Baltimore's shooting violence, tending to its victims on a daily basis.
Marla Johnston, a trauma nurse at Johns Hopkins Hospital, said her unit sees five or six shooting victims a week.
"It's pretty much out of control here in Baltimore," Johnston said. "There's a cultural norm regarding violence. They feel like it's normal, it's appropriate."
Despite that cultural conditioning, Johnston said, she believes laws that would restrict gun possession to older individuals would go a long way in cutting down on shootings. Most of the victims who come through her hospital, she said, are fairly young.
In Maryland, the minimum age for purchasing a handgun is 21.