In Gun Control
By Casey Coughlin
Dr. Christopher Koper, a Criminology Professor at George Mason University, has over twenty years of criminological research experience. Throughout his career he has worked with such organizations as the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), the University of Pennsylvania, the Urban Institute, the RAND Corporation, the Police Foundation and published articles specifically on firearms, policing, federal crime prevention efforts, and various research methods. Dr. Koper was also formerly the Director of Research for the Police Executive Research Forum. For more information on Dr. Koper’s work and a list of publications visit this page.
COUGHLIN: What do you think is the most effective aspect of proposed policy change regarding gun control?
KOPER: First of all, some of my research involves looking at different enforcement type issues and the interventions that can be effective there. We have research showing that things like the Focus Deterrence and “Pulling Levers” Approach can be successful. It’s a type of intervention that involves law enforcement, prosecutors, probation and parole officers, social service providers and alike at different levels working together collaboratively to focus their efforts on identifying high risk groups of gun violence and targeting them with a variety of interventions involving enhanced law enforcement, prosecutions, and provision of social services. This was an initiative that was first started in Boston in the 1990s and it has spread around the country. It has become a blueprint for Project Safe Neighborhoods, which is a national federal initiative. There have been a lot of studies of that approach that have shown it is effective in reducing gun violence.
I would say that the background check for private sales that they were trying to impose in Federal Law has a lot of potential to be effective. In principle, it would make it more difficult for offenders to find someone who would sell a gun to them without forcing them to go through a background check. It should make it harder to find people who will do this and lead to higher prices when they can connect with a seller and alike, so that of the different things [options] on the national level that would probably have the most potential impact.
COUGHLIN: What do you think is the most ineffective aspect of proposed legislation?
KOPER: Well, I may not be familiar with the full range of everything that they have been talking about but it’s just a matter of degree. How much impact are you going to get from different things? They are trying to revive the federal assault weapon ban that I studied a number of years ago. I studied the ban that was in place from ’94 – ’04, a measure like that can potentially reduce gun violence, potentially reduce shootings but the likely effect of something like that is going to be relatively small. That’s not necessarily to say trivial, but my best estimates from those studies were that in the long run limiting particularly large capacity ammunition magazines might reduce shootings by a few percentage points in the long run.
It might take a long time to see that effect materialize because it would depend on what sorts of exemptions they have in existing stock of large capacity magazines and assault weapons. But when you prepare those two different proposals against one another: the secondary market background check versus assault weapon legislation I think you have better potential to reduce gun violence coming from the secondary market legislation. Which is not to say that assault weapon legislation ban could not have any impact, it would just be smaller and longer term.
COUGHLIN: Do you think we could have too much gun control?
KOPER: There has been this debate about whether we need more laws or better enforcement of the laws that are already on the books. I think one of the things we need to do is better understand the implementation of the laws that we have and to understand some of the limitations of those laws.
Sometimes those laws might be written in ways that make them not particularly effective. It is a complicated question to answer; you would have to look at a variety of things: places where existing laws could be utilized more effectively and in some cases having some additional laws.
COUGHLIN: Can you give me an example of a law that is not being implemented to its full ability?
KOPER: One example concerns background checks for private sales at the state level. There are a number of states that have background check requirements. There is some research showing that gun homicide is lower in states that have these sorts of laws but there has been very little study of how these laws are implemented and enforced. In a recent study that I did with some colleges we surveyed big city police departments all over the country. These were police agencies serving cities of 100,000 or more people.
We asked them a variety of questions about gun laws and enforcement of those laws and different gun violence prevention strategies. When we looked at the enforcement of certain types of gun laws we found that it was often fairly modest. About one-third of the agencies in our sample were located in a state or locality that had a background check requirement of private sales. We had a follow up question for those agencies asking them how often they investigated cases involving potentially illegal private sales. We gave them a three point response scale; regularly, frequently, occasionally, or never. Only about one-quarter of the agencies said that they investigate those cases on regular bases. One-third of them said they never investigated these sorts of cases. This could be for a variety of reasons, some agencies sited resource restraints. This is not to say that no one enforces those laws because there could be state agencies that are enforcing them as well, but I think it is significant when the primary police agency in these urban areas are making very limited efforts to implement and enforce these particular laws. That is indicative of the sorts of things that we need to take a close look at.
Another issue that I think we need to examine more generally is criminal justice system response to a variety of gun crimes, not just gun violence, but even things like illegal gun possession and illegal gun carrying. I can’t tell you the amount of Police Chiefs I’ve heard say that in their jurisdictions people can be arrested over and over again for carrying a gun illegally and nothing really happens to them until they finally end up shooting someone. I think that is one reason why in our survey one of the top ranked strategies to reduce gun crime is referring cases to U.S. Attorney’s Office for prosecution, because the penalties can be more certain and severe in the federal system than in the state system. So looking at how those cases are treated in the courts might require legislative changes or even establishing a special institution such as a gun court.
COUGHLIN: Do you think that banning or increasing our restrictions is a good plan in seeking reduction in violence or does it just create a bigger desire to carry/possess an illegal weapon?
KOPER: That’s an interesting perspective; I don’t think that I have ever seen anyone argue that outlawing or restricting fire arms would necessarily have that sort of an impact. But I think more generally it’s fair to say that there are the supply side efforts and there are the demand side efforts. Sometimes some of the good enforcement strategies are really oriented more towards demand then they are towards supply. But there are other sorts of approaches that people try and use to try to make people less likely to want to use fire arms, various types of prevention programs that have been tried. A lot of them have not been evaluated very carefully but there are programs of that sort that try to address that demand side issue.
COUGHLIN: We are really quick to focus on mass shootings and forget about the fact that gun violence is a really an everyday battle for some communities.
KOPER: That’s right. I remember a few months back a Police Chief saying that we need to pay attention to the Newtowns that happen every day. Essentially a Newtown’s worth of young people are murdered everyday throughout the country, it’s an ongoing thing.
Of course the events like mass murders often really focus public attention on these issues and often bring it to the forefront of public debate but yes there is the ongoing, everyday toll of gun violence that is very important.
COUGHLIN: When you hear different people talking about gun control what do you think is one thing that everyone forgets?
KOPER: I think I would come back again to details of implementing and enforcing gun laws and how that can affect the effectiveness of different laws and the general societal response to looking at a wide variety gun crimes.
COUGHLIN: Typically, people cite their constitutional right to bear arms; do you think that enforcing stricter bans is violating that constitutional right?
KOPER: Not necessarily. The Supreme Court did lay down in a 2008 decision that (Heller vs. D.C.) yes there is a basic fundamental right firearm ownership by individuals for ownership in the home for weapons that are commonly possessed and used for lawful purposes; normal handguns, rifles and shot guns. But as with any constitutional right it’s not without its limitations. It doesn’t give you the ability to own any sort of weapon. The court left open the possibility of limiting certain types of particularly dangerous or unusual weapons so we still have restrictions on fully automatic machine guns and other explosive devices. They left open that government could have an interest in regulating carrying of weapons as well. It is not an absolute right, it establishes the basic right to ownership but there are areas where is can be regulated.