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The Gun Wars III: Making Enforcement Work

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By Tom Ferrick Jr.

In late 2006, Kenneth Goodman stopped by the police district near where he lives in Southwest Philadelphia to report the theft of two guns from his girlfriend's house.

He was lying. The guns were not stolen.

Goodman, a 24-year-old with no police record, had bought an AK47 assault rifle and a 9MM handgun for his cousin, Michael Westcott, a convicted drug dealer. As a felon, it was illegal for Westcott to purchase or possess a weapon. Instead, he enlisted his cousin to buy the firearms for him at a gun shop then report them as stolen as a cover story.

Had Goodman walked into the police station a few months before an officer would have taken down his theft report and filed it away.

As luck would have it - bad luck for Goodman- a joint city-state Gun Violence Task Force had been established a few months before.  A special agent from that task force had just been stationed in the district.  He was there the day Goodman walked in and he began to question the young man.

After extended conversation, the agent flipped Goodman. He got him to relate the real story.  Agents arrested Westcott and recovered the two weapons.

Westcott got 3 1/3 to 8 years in jail and is currently serving time in a state prison near Shamokin.  Goodman, under a plea agreement, got probation.

Goodman and Westcott were the first two arrested under the new anti-straw buying initiative the task force has operated ever since. Multiply that tale several hundred times and you have the heart of the task force's mission and its M.O. It has now made close to 400 arrests.

 

Good police work

"It's just good detective work," said Tom Burke, who is the supervisory special agent and, like most of the other two-dozen agents on the task force, a former Philadelphia police detective. The head of the task force is Al Toczydlowski, a long-time prosecutor in the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office.

"Al went out and found very seasoned former homicide detectives who really knew how to work the people they were interrogating and get information and compile evidence beforehand," said Daniel W. Webster, a gun violence expert at Johns Hopkins University. "Eventually, they say 'You got me.' I think it is a good model."

From a policy standpoint, the task force offers an opportunity to take gun enforcement one step back - in a good way. Before, law enforcement agencies usually had contact with a gun only after it was used - in a robbery, a homicide, a drug shooting.

This effort is designed to get the gun - and its owner - before he has a chance to use it.  There's no way to tell for sure  if Michael Westcott would have used his AK47 and his 9MM handgun to commit a crime, but the odds are they would have ended up being aimed and fired at someone, somewhere for some reason.

Politics and court rulings have combined to prevent the flow of guns to the streets.  In Pennsylvania, with its permissive gun laws, the pipeline of firearms is open and flowing.  There is no waiting period for gun purchasers and no limits on the number of firearms they can buy.

With no effective way to stop the flow at the beginning of the pipeline - through stringent gun-control laws - the Gun Violence Task Force represents what may be the next best thing: seek to control the other end and take the guns out of the hands of those with criminal intent.

In other words, stop the gun before it goes off.

 

Enforcement works

Webster, who is head of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, says there is merit in the enforcement approach, if it is done right.

He thinks the anti-gun advocates are overly simplistic in their belief that the only answer is in strict laws limiting sale of guns.

"I think the enforcement part of critically important," Webster said in an interview with Metropolis. "These guys (at the gun task force) are focusing on supply and that is very important. And I think it is ridiculous to create these either/or dichotomies. We have a huge problem in the U.S. so why be forced to pick? We need to control supply and address things on the demand side of the problem."

While anti-gun activists work their side of the pipeline, what would help law enforcement officials with their end? In conversations with police and prosecutors, they mention two things:

-- One is a law that would make it a crime to fail to report the theft of firearms. As Webster put it: "This is something to prosecute someone on. It takes away the ready explanation a person has when police come knocking on the door and say: 'Mr. Smith, the gun registered in your name we took off a gang member.' And his response is: 'I'm sorry. That gun was stolen and I forgot to report it."

-- Another enforcement of the law against carrying a gun without a carry permit. It is a felony, but usually results in probation. If you are able to stop, arrest and get jail time for a person for illegally having a gun on their person it takes the gun out of circulation before it can be fired.

As Webster put it, studies have shown that what makes deterrence effective is not the stiffness of the penalty, but the probability someone will get caught. "If they don't think they can get away with carrying the gun, they stop doing it," he said.

He added: "What the research says is that what is most consistently effective in reducing shootings are these police interventions where they have specialized units whose only function is to go into parts of cities and make it a riskier thing to have a gun on your person or in your car."

 

Tom Ferrick Jr. is senior editor of Metropolis

 

 

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