Commentary

Pa. Att’y Gen. Shapiro is putting the focus on ghost guns – but that’s the wrong place to look for a solution to Philly’s violence problem | Opinion

A display of ‘ghost guns’ displayed by Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office during a Capitol news conference on Monday, 12/16/19 (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro is gunning for higher office — Governor, to be precise — and he’s using “ghost guns” to do it.

On June 29, Shapiro tweeted that his office “just seized 3D printers owned by a convicted felon — and used to build unregulated, DIY ghost guns.”

“No one should be able to build a gun in their home,” he continued. “It’s time to close the ghost gun loophole.

Ghost guns, like a lot in life, are scary in theory. A person can buy a 3D printer and, with the right knowledge, create an untraceable firearm.

It’s the new-school way of shaving a serial number off a gun, which criminals do in order to evade detection for serious violent crimes.

But are ghost guns really that much of a problem? Or are they a red herring for the public, so leaders like Shapiro and legislators nationwide can avoid funding the hard, but crucial, work of strategic violence prevention initiatives?

Just look to Philadelphia. We have the highest homicide rate, per capita, in the state, by far. It’s not a new problem or a District Attorney Larry Krasner problem.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said her department took 5,000 illegal guns off the street last year: 99 of them were ghost guns.

That’s less than 2 percent.

A 2016 study found that 2.9 percent of children die within 30 days of abdominal surgery, with the rate being lower in developed nations and higher in less developed nations. Still, it is a risk everywhere. Yet  rational people don’t deny their children surgery when they need it.

Of course, the ability to be able to build a gun is of inferior societal importance. But is it really a driver of violence worthy of the attorney general’s attention? Hardly.

Serious people who study and perform violence prevention work know that a much greater portion of gun violence is driven by “beefs” amongst disadvantaged urban community members who have little trust in the police.

There are ways to successfully intervene in these conflicts. Focused deterrence strategies that involve carrot-and-stick negotiations with gang members cut Boston’s youth homicide rate by 63 percent in the 1990s, and a similar success was replicated in the 2010s in Oakland, California.

These interventions take some funding and a lot of collaborative work between city agencies. They aren’t as simple as “taking guns off the street,” which means they don’t serve as well as political talking points.

If Shapiro was serious about reducing violence, he could pick up the phone and call Dr. Gary Slutkin of Cure Violence, criminologist David M. Kennedy (the inventor of focused deterrence), or Pastor Mike McBride, who has helped cut Oakland’s homicide rate in half.

My suspicion is that Shapiro doesn’t actually care, though. It doesn’t affect him. He simply wants your vote.

Rory Fleming is an attorney and writer who has worked for various criminal justice organizations, including the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, Harvard Law School Fair Punishment Project, and the National Network for Safe Communities. He writes from Philadelphia. 

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