In the midst of the debate, it's illuminating to hear from someone who's been there and done that.
William Bratton served as New York City's top cop for 27 months from 1994 to 1996, he helped turn around a violent, crime-ridden city with policies that later were adopted nationwide and across the globe. The 65-year-old now runs a consulting business and a tech firm that focus on law enforcement.
The problem with the gun and ammo bans, he offers, "is that that's going forward." They do nothing about the 350 million firearms, including assault weapons, and hundreds of thousands of extended clips already in circulation. "You can't deal with that retroactively." As for the practical effect of gun control, he notes that "all the studies that were done about assault weapons after the ban ended after 10 years were pretty much inconclusive."
Mr. Bratton predicts that "the most successful focus is going to be on the licensing and background checks. Because that's the heart of the problemŚwho gets access to the guns?" he says. "Clearly a large number of people who shouldn't have firearms actually apply through the process and obtain firearms."
But the gun reform that truly gets Mr. Bratton fired up is one you don't hear much about these days. It is what he calls "certainty of punishment," or stricter gun-crime sentences.
"People are out on the streets who should be in jail. Jail is appropriate for anyone who uses a gun in the commission of an act of violence. Some cities have a deplorable lack of attention to this issue," he says, citing Philadelphia.
In Chicago, where the murder rate rose 16% last year, "to try to put someone in jail for gun-related activity you really have to go the extra mile," he says. "If there's one crime for which there has to be a certainty of punishment, it is gun violence." He ticks off other places where help is needed: "Oakland, Chicago, D.C., BaltimoreŚall have gangs whose members have no capacity for caring about life and respect for life. Someone like that? Put 'em in jail. Get 'em off the streets. Keep people safe."
In late 1993, after a brief return stint in Boston, Mr. Bratton was appointed commissioner of the New York City Police Department by Mayor-elect Rudy Giuliani. Mr. Bratton publicly promised to cut crime by 10% in his first year and 15% in his second. Privately he told Mr. Giuliani that crime would drop 40% in three years.
And down it went. In two years, murders fell 39%, robbery 31%, burglary 25% and car theft 36%. By 1998, two years after he left the job but with his programs firmly in place, murders had fallen 70%, robbery 55%, burglary 53% and car theft 61%.
For starters, police wouldn't ignore minor crimes such as prostitution, aggressive panhandling, excessive noise and underage drinking. It was an application of what would become famous as the "broken windows" theory, which held that even small signs of disorder would, if left untended, breed further disorder, crime and fear.
"Stop the behavior when it's small, stop the cancer when it's small," Mr. Bratton says, an approach he says is as useful today as it was then. It turns out that those who committed minor offenses often also committed major ones. When police started arresting subway turnstile-jumpers, one in seven had an outstanding warrant and one in 25 carried a gun.
Another innovation was the almost obsessive use of timely crime data to drive tactics and accountability. Police began questioning every person arrested with a gun about where, when and how it was obtained. Detectives were instructed to investigate all shootings as if they were murders.
All of this went on under a legal architecture that had existed for years, including a 1974 state gun-control law considered the strictest in the nation. The tide turned so dramatically only in 1994, says Mr. Bratton, because finally the police enforced the law "fairly, compassionately and consistently" across all neighborhoods.
This last point is the most critical, and the simplest; ENFORCE THE LAWS WHICH ARE ALREADY ON THE BOOKS.