September 11, 2016

As we look at the recent murder of five military service members at a recruiting station, the church shooting in South Carolina and the 4th of July shootings in Chicago, we hear the familiar cry for more gun control. While we can’t stop every person bent on evil, we can do something about the gun violence plaguing our cities.   I understand this call for Gun Control from the people who live on the south side of Chicago. They live with guns everywhere, constant shootings, people bleeding on the streets and murders. It is perfectly reasonable that they want something done to make their community safer, but the reality is they aren’t going to get more gun control and they aren’t going to stop the flow of guns into Chicago. Guns are a legal product and that isn’t going to change. If you figure out where the guns are coming from today and stop it, another source will pop up tomorrow because someone can make money and again, guns are a legal product and sold throughout this nation. The reality is there is no “Firearms Trafficking” statute/law. ATF expends a huge amount of their limited resources trying to enforce a law that doesn’t exist. The call for Gun Control is just something that allows politicians to say they are trying to do something.

A solution we call all agree on, from the far left to the far right, is to refocus the limited resources of law enforcement to do what everyone already thought they were doing. What does that mean? You first have to understand a dirty little secret about crime in this country. For years, politicians have been pushing law enforcement to reclassify crime to keep stats down and in doing so, keep property values and the tax base up. This is done primarily through the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting or UCR. How is this done? Well, a Drive by Shooting of an Occupied Residence might be classified as an Illegal Discharge of a Firearm instead of Attempted Murder. Or an exchange of gunfire between rivals in which no one is hit might be classified as a Reckless Endangerment instead of an Attempted Murder. Or shots fired into an occupied vehicle might be called Property Damage instead of Attempted Murder. I hope you see the pattern here and this simple change in reporting keeps crime stats down and protects the tax base. Keep in mind that what is documented on the Police Report has little to do with what the suspect might be charged with. What happens next is even more surprising, even to some Police Chiefs. If a Drive by Shooting of an Occupied Residence (Illegal Discharge of a Firearm) occurs and no one is hit, no detective will be assigned. If police show up to a Shots Fired call (Reckless Endangerment) and no one is hit, no detective or investigation occurs. If someone is shot and wounded (Attempted Murder), a detective is assigned, but he is so overworked the case will quickly be closed if he can’t solve it in a few days. The only real attention is given to Homicide Investigations. This is where police put a lot of resources and their solve rate is a source of pride for a department.

The problem with this strategy is we only take shooters seriously when they finally kill someone. So a shooter could commit dozens of shootings, even hitting victims on numerous occasions, and police won’t focus on him until he commits a murder. Can you imagine ignoring a serial arsonist until someone finally dies in one of his fires? The goal should be to address illegal behavior before it escalates to a murder. We need to correct these young men early on rather than wait until a murder occurs and lock them up for life. Even more critical is the effect of not addressing shooters. Every time they commit a shooting and no one addresses their crimes, it only emboldens them and makes it more likely for them to continue and escalate their violence. It also allows others in the community to come to the false belief that there is no consequence to shootings a gun. I know it sound simplistic, but these are basic playground rules we learned in kindergarten. If you don’t address the bully on the playground, he will only escalate his bad behavior and soon others will also become bullies. But if you believe in the current strategy, Gun Control, the solution to playground bullies is to not address the bullies, but just ban the playground equipment. You don’t tear down the swing set because Billy is pushing Susie off the swing. This is what we are doing with Gun Control.

I developed a strategy while at ATF that targets shooters with the goal of addressing their behavior before they commit a murder. Again, the reality of this strategy is most citizens assume law enforcement is already doing this. This is all done by implementing the Crime Gun Intelligence Strategy.   By focusing Law Enforcement’s limited resources on shootings, we identify, target and prosecute shooters before they commit a murder. NIBIN (National Integrated Ballistic Information Network) is the technology centerpiece of the strategy. Law enforcement officers would respond to every scene and attempt to collect shell casings. If the city has “ShotSpotter” (an acoustic gunfire detection system) the strategy would work even faster and more accurately by assisting in the collection of shell casings from crime scenes and locating shootings that weren’t reported to police. Keep in mind, the national average is only one in five shootings is actually called into 911. In some areas, only one in forty-five shootings are called into 911. Once the spent shell casings are collected, they are digitally imaged and compared to other shootings previously entered into the NIBIN database. Investigators can quickly identify if the same firearm has been used in numerous shootings to determine if there is an active “serial shooter” on the streets. By going back and interviewing witnesses from the previous incidents, detectives can identify the shooter. Keep in mind; witnesses are more likely to identify a suspect on lesser crimes than on major crimes. Connecting the lesser crimes to the major crimes is critical. It should also be noted that witnesses are also more likely to talk a few days after the incident rather than immediately following a shooting since most people flee when shots are fired and no one wants to be identified as a snitch. This is extremely helpful in solving minor and major crimes.

The primary goal should be stopping the violence - not making high profile cases for prosecutors or locking someone up for life. Once the shooter is identified, all effort is done to stop his crime spree. Often, this can be done by a probation revocation or an arrest for traffic violations. Again, our priority should be to stop the shootings. Once we remove the shooter off the streets, witnesses are more inclined to come forward and testify.   This strategy has already been effectively implemented in Denver. By using this strategy with only a few agents, detectives and a progressive crime lab, Denver has seen a 70% reduction in gun violence in areas where these active serial shooters are identified, targeted and prosecuted. While solving homicides, the Denver Crime Gun Intelligence Center is also able to address these shooters – BEFORE a murder is committed. The problem we face across the nation has nothing to do with Gun Control. We must target the shooters.

Why is this so difficult? Even though NIBIN/Crime Gun Intelligence is DOJ and ATF’s main strategy of combating gun violence, the reality is ATF still spends most of its time and money buying narcotics with the hope of eventually getting a gun. 

For the past thirty years, Law Enforcement has claimed that drugs are causing all the problems of this country. Police departments assign more people to drug squads than to investigate shootings under the old belief that drugs cause gun violence. But by using the Crime Gun Intelligence strategy, we find the majority of shootings are over women, respect or old feuds, not drugs. To be clear, I am not advocating legalization of drugs, but drugs aren’t the primary cause of the gun violence plaguing our nation. Targeting young men making street level drug sales has little effect on gun violence and only causes more anger in the inner cities towards law enforcement. It also brings up the all too common allegations of racial profiling. But to admit this strategy has failed would require changing the way we do business in law enforcement. One of the biggest battles I had at ATF was getting upper management to admit the first ten years of NIBIN was a failure and didn’t produce any measurable results. But by owning this failure, we were able to stop continuing the mistakes of the past and make positive changes. This is huge hurdle in government, but until we admit our current strategy has failed, the gun violence will continue.

This is important to help us get past the debate over gun control. Not only can we do something to actually reduce gun violence, we can also avoid driving someone to the edge because he thinks the government is coming for his guns. This fight has gone on too long and we need to find some common ground to make our country safer, provide some peace to our citizens and alleviate the fear of legal gun owners.

Pulse: John Risenhoover