By Tom Ferrick Jr.
For a law-enforcement success story look to the work of the Gun Violence Task Force, a joint city-state venture created three years ago to crack down on illegal guns in
In late December, the Task Force announced its latest round of arrests - 21 persons accused of gun trafficking and related offenses. It brings to nearly 400 arrested by the Task Force since its creation, most of them either straw purchasers who bought guns for others or felons who obtained guns illegally.
To date, the Task Force has opened 1,207 investigations, seized 743 firearms and convicted 157 people of various gun-related offenses. That last number will go even higher as more cases are processed through the courts.
There is more to this story than statistics.
As Daniel W. Webster, director of the Center for Gun Policy Research at
"It's an unusual thing to do," Webster said. "Because forever and ever police have been interested in who is pulling the trigger, not who supplied the gun."
The task force also serves as an example of what can be accomplished when each part of the criminal justice machinery works together. In order to succeed, the task force needed the attorney general's office, the district attorney's office, the police and the courts to cooperate and work in tandem. They did.
A lot of credit goes to Al Toczydlowski, a well-respected prosecutor who was hired to supervise the task force. Toczydlowski, who worked in the
The $5 million needed annually to finance task force operations was originally inserted into the state budget in 2006 by state Sen. Vincent Fumo, now serving time in federal prison after his conviction on federal corruption charges last year.
Unusual for an urban Democrat, Fumo was a consistent opponent of gun control - but by funding the task force he was placing a bet on enforcement solving the problem.
(See Part Three for a discussion of gun control vs. enforcement.)
Sometimes throwing money at a problem does work.
The money has paid for improvements in the police ballistics lab in
But, the heart of the operation is the local team of 32 prosecutors and investigators assembled by Toczydlowski. Most of the agents, including supervisory Special Agent Tom Burke, are former
They entered virgin territory. As Webster noted, to
"Nothing was being done to investigate the guns that were involved in crimes - just because of the lack of resources," said Toczydlowski. "There was no follow up. They concentrated on the crime itself."
Focus on felons
The task force focused its effort on felons. Convicted felons cannot purchase or possess guns. Yet, as every police officer knew, they had ready access to them.
As Toczydlowski framed it, the issue was: "How did the guy get the gun? Felons can't get guns, so how are they getting them? Where are they getting them? That is our mission."
Toczydlowski said most criminals prefer to buy new guns purchased at gun shops or shows.
"The more sophisticated criminals don't like to buy guns on the street because they don't know whose hands they have been in," Toczydlowski said. "They may have a murder on them or a robbery on them. If they are caught with that gun, they could become a suspect in something else. So, they want the guns out of the stores."
Since felons cannot buy guns, Burke said they have also been known to obtain false ID's.
But most turn to straw purchasers - people without criminal records - who will go to a gun shop or gun show and buy the guns for them.
As it turns out, even felons have girlfriends and they often act as the straw purchaser.
"Why do people do it?" Toczydlowski said. "They do it for love, drugs or money."
To date, the task force has found little evidence of professional gun trafficking - people who buy new guns in bulk and sell them to criminals at a hefty profit.
Burke credits his agents, with their long experience in interrogation, for being able to flip straw purchasers and get them to identify the true owner of the guns. Under plea bargains, the straw buyers often get probation in exchange for pointing task force agents to felons, who get state prison time for gun possession.
Has the task force had a measurable effect on gun violence?
"I can't say that," Toczydlowski said. "But if we put people with violent records away for any period of time, you are stopping crime. And I think that is the biggest effect. If you take 200 guys who always carried guns off the street, that is going to have an effect."