Eric Adams (165061)
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Recently, a familiar debate arose—one that has almost become a national ritual. After the horrific shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas—which together claimed 31 lives and left dozens of other people injured—many said it was time to renew the ban on assault rifles, the weapons the shooters used to massacre innocents. 

Their calls are well intentioned, and I agree with the common-sense proposition that civilians should not have unlimited access to weapons of war. It’s completely understandable to single out assault weapons, given the fact that the horrific mass shootings of the kind that just happened often grab national headlines. But by focusing on these destructive firearms, we risk overlooking the true crisis driving the gun violence crisis in this country, particularly in urban areas: handguns. 

It’s no secret that the U.S. is an anomaly when it comes to gun deaths. In 2017, firearms killed 39,773 people in the U.S. This country consistently leads the developed world in gun homicides and suicides by a large margin.

But dig deeper into the data, and you find something even more striking. Contrary to popular belief, assault weapons account for a small fraction of gun homicides. Handguns represent the vast majority. A 2013 study from the Department of Justice found that between 1993-2011, 70 percent of all firearm homicides in the U.S. were committed with handguns. And according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics survey, from 1993 to 2010, males, Blacks, and persons ages 18 to 24 were most likely to be victims of firearm-related homicide.

The majority of those homicides occurred in urban areas. Three of the top four states with the highest percentage of handgun homicides relative to other firearm homicides were Illinois, Maryland, and New York—home to three of the biggest metropolitan centers in the country. While conservatives often seize on a spike in shootings in places like Baltimore to paint a picture of urban dysfunction, they seldom look at the underlying factors contributing to these crises. Gun violence in communities of color is seen as routine, a feature of daily life.  

Handguns were also used in recent high-profile mass shootings in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville, and in the Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago. Perhaps not coincidentally, these incidents received far less national coverage than the ones in El Paso and Dayton. Since they often involve gangs, some have been reluctant to label them mass shootings despite the fact that they meet the definition, which speaks to an insidious double standard.

This doesn’t even touch on suicides with a firearm, which on average account for two-thirds of all gun-related fatalities. The bottom line is, handguns have a far higher body count than other firearms in this country. Yet there has been little political will to address this crisis. While state and federal lawmakers who represent communities of color are comfortable calling for a ban on AR-15’s, there has been little effort to address the 9mm’s flooding our streets. It’s clear we need a multi-pronged approach that recognizes the unique role handguns play in fueling urban violence. 

My time as a cop on the beat in the New York Police Department during the ’80s and ’90s, and developing the first CompStat model, taught me that targeted enforcement is the key to long-term reductions in crime, which tends to be geographically concentrated in certain areas. As Thomas Abt points out in his new book, “Bleeding Out,” which discusses how to effectively tackle urban gun violence, in 2015, more than a quarter of gun homicides happened in about 1,200 neighborhoods that contain just 1.5 percent of the U.S. population. Through a targeted approach that deploys resources to areas with chronic issues, we can dramatically reduce the number of handguns on our streets. 

We also can’t be lenient when it comes to the possession or distribution of handguns. Aggressively prosecuting people who funnel firearms into our communities, and implementing harsh penalties against those caught with a gun, must be a part of a comprehensive strategy to reduce gun violence. Relaxing our laws will only result in backsliding in certain communities.

The problem cannot be solved with law enforcement alone. Local governments need to partner with community organizations that have valuable, on-the-ground knowledge. I have called on the mayor of New York City to double funding to groups like Cure Violence, which use “violence interrupters” to identify people at risk of violence and intervene to deescalate conflict. This is a model that needs to be scaled up across the country.

These solutions aren’t always sexy. They certainly aren’t the type of policies that make national headlines and are splashed across news chyrons. But we need to understand that gun violence isn’t confined to the news cycle. It is a pervasive disease, and urban areas are often ground zero for this epidemic. It’s time we make that part of the national conversation.

Eric L. Adams is the borough president of Brooklyn.