The enforcement of gun laws


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Both sides in the gun control debate say the best way to curtail gun violence is simply "to enforce the laws on the books."

But it is in their interpretations of that goal where the pro-gun and anti-gun camps differ greatly.

Hoping to position itself as the voice of reason in the middle is a nationwide coalition of more than 550 mayors, including Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and 184 others in Pennsylvania. Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group founded in 2006 by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, has called for better federal funding and improved coordination between agencies to make enforcement of gun laws a possibility.

However, gun lobby groups and pro-gun lawmakers contend the mayors' group has a more sinister agenda. They say the mayors place the burden of tracking illegal guns on law-abiding gun owners and, ultimately, aim to ban all firearms.

The mayors' group has helped defeat legislation that would allow gun owners with concealed-weapons permit in one state to carry a concealed firearm in another, a sore point with National Rifle Association supporters. The mayors' group wants to make federal trace data about guns used in crimes available to law enforcement and to make summary reports about trace data available to the public -- another sore point for foes.

"They are waging war against law abiding gun owners," said NRA spokeswoman Rachel Parsons.

She said the mayors group's name is deceptive, saying: "Who wouldn't advocate against illegally owned firearms? ... But this organization is about gun control, not crime control. If they were really interested in curbing gun crime, they would march down to the police departments and the Justice Department and ask them to enforce the laws on the books."

One Pennsylvania state representative agreed.

"I would say that they're misrepresenting their position. They're leaving out the liberal, gun-grabbing agenda that they really have," said Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, an advocate for gun owners' rights.

But according to several local coalition members, the characterization of the mayors group as anti-firearms is off base. The mayors have expressed their support for the Second Amendment right to bear arms and the organization has taken no position on the assault weapons ban, said coalition spokesman Jason Post.

The coalition counts among its members several gun owners and at least one NRA member.

Mr. Ravenstahl "does support gun owners' rights and we believe this organization does support gun owners' rights," said his spokeswoman, Joanna Doven. "Our goal is make sure gun owners' rights are protected and make sure that guns are in the hands of" licensed owners.

"It's normally not the legal owners of guns that we encounter" when investigating a crime, said Pittsburgh Police Cmdr. Thomas Stangrecki.

"It's the persons carrying firearms illegally. ... Some of the guns are traded for drugs, taken from unsecured homes or from closets of family members, and traded on the street for money or drugs. From there, those guys either use them in crimes like robberies, shootings, homicides or they sell them again on the streets on the underground market."

Cmdr. Stangrecki said city police made 496 gun arrests in 2010 and 659 in 2009 for firearms violations. Those arrested were either prohibited from having a gun without a permit, or because they were a felon or juvenile in possession of a gun. "A lot of these arrests were from traffic stops or of a person seen on the street carrying a weapon," he said.

The set of 40 "executive actions" the mayors' coalition recommended to President Barack Obama a year and a half ago has made little headway in Washington. Among their proposals, the coalition asked the president to improve how background checks are coordinated between federal agencies, local law enforcement and gun industry representatives.

The mayors also asked the administration to investigate and prosecute individuals whose purchases have been rejected by gun dealers and to police improper sales at gun shows. They wanted background checks for gun store employees, and also requested better gun tracing to help track the dealers with the most illegal gun sales.

Pittsburgh Police Chief Nate Harper said he considers guns "a problem in Pittsburgh whether legal or not legal."

Homestead Mayor Betty Esper, a member of the coalition, agrees. Along with others in the coalition, she doesn't see it as an imposition to ask legal gun owners to help track down criminals who use stolen or illegally purchased guns.

"It's such a no-brainer," she said. "If your gun is stolen, you report it to the police. If that gun has been used in a killing, you've been on file to say that gun was stolen.

"I don't understand how any intelligent person would be against that."

Often gun owners legally obtain weapons but they are irresponsible about securing them, according to Sgt. Diane Epperson of the Pittsburgh Police Firearms Tracking Unit.

Ms. Esper said she thinks elected officials in more prominent positions than mayors are afraid to stand up to the NRA's pro-gun position. "If you're against guns, you could lose the election," and she believes lawmakers are "putting politics before human life."

Butler Mayor Margaret Stock signed on to the coalition two years ago.

"If your police departments are put in jeopardy by illegal guns, that's an important concern," she said. Her city has had a few serious incidents in recent years that have made the matter imperative.

"The big issue is enforcing the laws that are out there. The background checks. The paperwork. Some of the laws get circumvented, and that puts people in jeopardy. ... It's not an anti-gun position. It's an anti-illegal gun position."

The statewide contingent of mayors supports more thorough data reporting to the instant background check system to protect against prohibited persons -- like felons or people with a history of certain mental heath disorders -- from buying guns.

But the instant database is sparsely populated. Eighteen states have less than 100 mental health records in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Pennsylvania is one of 10 states that has not submitted any mental health records at all.

Kim Stolfer, legislative committee chair of the Allegheny County Sportsmen's League and chair of Firearms Owners Against Crime said the mayors' perceived neutrality on legal guns is a convenient illusion.

"Superficially, their statements appeal to many as reasonable, but their actions are more draconian and predicate the freedoms of the law abiding based on the misdeeds of criminals," he said.

Ms. Doven said Mr. Ravenstahl hasn't received many complaints about his membership in the coalition. Ms. Stock, the mayor of Butler, said she received some mail when the names of coalition members were posted on NRA supporter websites, but none of the complaining parties were local.

Illegal guns are a small-town concern, too. "I just don't want to see guns get in the hands of people that could do some damage," said Arnie Bowser, mayor of Greensboro, a town of 273 people in Greene County. He is also a coalition member.


Gabrielle Banks: gbanks@post-gazette.com


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