The Changing Gun Debate

The senseless loss of life at Virginia Tech breaks our hearts. And every day, nearly 30 people are murdered in the United States. We ask ourselves, what can be done to stop this kind of gun violence? As mayor of the country's largest city, I have asked myself that question many times. In New York, we've cut murders by 40 percent compared with six years ago. But eight police officers have been gunned down in the line of duty in that span—eight young men who were protecting us.

FBI statistics show that violent crime is on the rise across America, and the news out of Virginia has again raised the critical issue of keeping guns away from the people who should not have them—criminals and those with a history of being potentially dangerous. There are questions about whether a background check should have prevented the Virginia Tech shooter from purchasing the guns. Regardless, the fact is that most crimes are committed with illegal weapons—and that is where the new gun debate is, or at least should be, centered. In New York, we aggressively go after these guns, but no city can stop the flow of illegal firearms alone, just like no city can stop the flow of illegal drugs alone. These are national problems that require national leadership.

Unfortunately, in recent years, combating gun crime hasn't been a priority of this Justice Department or Congress. Actually, that's understating it. Congress is undermining our local efforts by handcuffing our police departments. Hard as it is to believe, right now federal law prevents our police officers from looking at all the data on guns used in crimes in our region. Where and when were they bought—and by whom? These are questions that we can't ask. That means we can't easily identify crooked dealers and illegal trafficking patterns. We can't connect the dots. If there's one lesson that we learned from 9/11, it's that law enforcement agencies have to talk to each other.

Last year, I was talking with Boston Mayor Tom Menino, and he was just as frustrated as I was about the lack of action by the federal government. So we did something about it. Along with 13 other mayors, we started a coalition called Mayors Against Illegal Guns. Our goal: to find creative ways to rid our streets of illegal guns. One way that our city has done that is by conducting an undercover sting operation against a group of dealers in five states whose guns kept turning up in crimes in New York. What did we find? Many of them sold guns in violation of federal law. We sued—and I'm happy to say, many of them have already agreed to stop breaking the law and to be monitored for three years.

Most gun dealers follow the law and run honest businesses. But the statistics show that 1 percent of dealers sell more than half of all illegal guns. Why isn't the federal government going after them? Here's one reason: unlike mayors, members of Congress don't get a phone call in the middle of the night when a cop is shot and killed. They don't deliver the eulogies.

Now, the conventional wisdom is that we'll never persuade Congress to do anything because members are too afraid of the special interests. But our strategy is to change the terms of the debate. The fact is, there's common ground on this issue for anyone who is willing to look at it honestly, not ideologically. This isn't about gun control. It's about crime control.

The question is, can't we protect the rights of law-abiding gun owners while also doing more to keep guns out of the hands of criminals? Of course. It's not an either-or; a middle ground exists. One of our allies is the American Hunters and Shooters Association. They understand that our goals and their goals are compatible—and that we can work together. We need more of that in Washington.

The response to our group astonished us. In 12 months, more than 200 mayors have signed on—and we're still growing. This groundswell is not partisan or regional. We have Republicans, Democrats, independents, big cities and small towns—north, south, east, west. Our message is resonating because this isn't about ideology or the Second Amendment. It's about law enforcement. It's about getting data on guns used in crimes, one of the top tools our police have for cracking down on illegal weapons.

Will we succeed? In my own brief political experience, I've found that pragmatism beats ideology. So yes—and sooner rather than later.