This story was produced in partnership with the Garrison Project, an independent, nonpartisan organization addressing the crisis of mass incarceration and policing.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ “Blueprint to End Gun Violence” received an extraordinary amount of attention from the media and politicians, culminating in a visit from President Joe Biden on Feb. 3 to discuss the mayor’s strategies to combat gun crime in the city.
Just a few days after Adams released his high-profile plan, Philadelphia Councilmember Curtis Jones Jr. published a report titled “100 Shooting Review Committee Report.” The report received far less attention and was covered only by the local Philadelphia press. That’s a shame. The report’s authors examined more than 2,000 shootings. What they found is that gun violence is much more complicated than Adam’s blueprint suggests, arguing that a better way to focus on gun violence is to target the violence more than the guns.
It’s a critical distinction. During Biden’s visit to New York City, Adams called for a “9/11-type response” to gun violence. The thrust of his plan—besides exhorting the state legislature to roll back recent reforms on bail and discovery—is to aggressively go after guns by increasing detection efforts at state entry points, expanding funding for the New York Police Department’s Gun Violence Suppression Division, working more closely with the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to trace guns, and investing in new surveillance technology to detect illegal firearms. Most consequentially, Adams promises to revive the NYPD’s undercover “anti-crime units”—disbanded in 2020 amid concerns about unconstitutional stops and excessive violence—and rechristen them “Neighborhood Safety Teams,” deploying 400 to 500 officers on the streets to focus on “gun removals.”
The Philadelphia report—written by a wide range of sometimes contentious stakeholders, including the Philadelphia Police Department, the district attorney’s office under reformer Larry Krasner, the Department of Public Health, and the Defender Association of Philadelphia—suggests that such interdiction is likely futile. The authors provided analyses and policy recommendations for a city suffering from a record 559 homicides in 2021. While the proposals from the Philadelphia police broadly track with the Adams plan, the recommendations from the other stakeholders, including the city’s district attorney, caution strongly against an approach that centers on gun interdiction.
While Adams believes that we can stop the flow of guns, Krasner simply does not, writing that “focusing so many resources on removing guns from the street while a constant supply of new guns is available is unlikely to stop gun violence.” Krasner’s skepticism is based on Pennsylvania gun data from 1999 to 2019, which indicates that on the average day, 1,600 guns were sold in the state, with more than 200 sold each day in Philadelphia and the four neighboring counties. These figures are based on legal, traceable in-state gun sales, which thus excludes many legal sales, any out-of-state sales, and all illegal sales. Out of all these guns—many of which, of course, were not used illegally—the Philadelphia police only seized an average of 12 guns per day. Given the surge in gun purchases nationwide in 2020, Krasner’s concern about a “constant supply” of firearms is likely all the greater in 2022.
Krasner also worries that gun enforcement won’t actually solve gun violence; he notes that many in law enforcement support gun possession cases as a way to fight gun violence “in spite of little research supporting the approach.” (The Adams proposal is silent about any sort of empirical support here.) But his assertion is at least partially backed up by data. As of December 2021, Philadelphia had hundreds of open fatal (460) and nonfatal (650) shooting cases. But over the same time period, illegal gun possession cases more than tripled, increasing from 628 to over 2,200. Krasner concludes “that the current intense focus on illegal gun possession without a license is having no effect on the gun violence crisis and distracts from successfully investigating shootings.” To be clear, the report on which Krasner relies claims that there is no evidence that gun interdiction efforts reduce or increase gun violence—we are generally blind on the issue. But Krasner notes that whether shootings are higher or lower, the number of shooting arrests remains flat, suggesting that police capacity is relatively fixed. So, absent significant investment in hiring more police, more targeting of guns will mean less focus on other crimes.
Krasner proposes that, instead of focusing on gun possession cases, we should target violence more directly. For starters, gun violence reduction efforts would be better served by improving the clearance rate for shooting cases, better protecting witnesses, and improving the rate at which police officers, witnesses, and victims appear at shooting trials. Krasner is on particularly firm ground on low clearance rates in shootings. “In recent years, four out of five non-fatal shootings in Philadelphia went unsolved,” Krasner writes, “Out of 11,306 shootings in Philadelphia since 2015, 8,918 did not result in arrest. … As 2021 draws to a close, there have been arrests made in only 17 percent of non-fatal shootings and 28 percent of fatal shootings that occurred this year.” Low clearance rates are not unique to Philadelphia: In 2020, the NYPD cleared only about 30 percent of nonfatal shootings, and other cities have historically been even worse (for Chicago, it is from 5 to 11 percent).
In the report, Krasner foregrounds the social costs of enforcement that Adams’ plan does not necessarily deny but treats much more casually. In his pitch for the newly named Neighborhood Safety Teams, for example, Adams says the NYPD will rely on “additional training, supervision, analytics, and risk monitoring to ensure these enhanced teams work with communities.” Adams gives no indication of what these policies would be, or why we should expect them to improve more than past efforts along these lines. There is reason to be wary that these sorts of rebrandings and restructurings will result in meaningful cultural and behavioral changes. In 2015, for example, then New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a “neighborhood policing” plan meant to improve relationships between officers and residents after years of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s stop and frisk and the killing of Eric Garner by anti-crime unit officer Daniel Pantaleo. But at least one member of City Council raised concerns that the transfer of former anti-crime unit officers into the new neighborhood policing teams undermined those teams’ effectiveness.
There are additional costs to weigh, too. Krasner notes how misenforcement—including racial disparities in stops (80 percent of people arrested for illegal gun possession in Philadelphia are Black) and the loss of faith in the system that happens when cases get dismissed because officers failed to appear at trial—undermines public safety. “Focusing so many resources on removing guns from the street while a constant supply of new guns is available is unlikely to stop gun violence,” he writes, “but it does erode trust and the perceived legitimacy of the system.” He makes this point most forcefully in the section resisting the use of actuarial models to identify people likely to be illegally possessing guns. Krasner cautions that any sort of model will be built around the limited, biased data that comes from the low percentage of shooting cases that produce arrests (about 20 percent for nonlethal shootings and 30 percent for lethal ones). Ultimately, these flawed models encourage police to cast broad nets that will end up locking up thousands of people just to prevent dozens of future shootings, imposing significant human and social—and moral—costs that could overwhelm the benefits of such detention.
Adams is silent about any of the social costs of broad-based sweeps when calling for the need to adopt surveillance software or the Neighborhood Safety Teams. But the New York City Center for Court Innovation’s August 2020 report on gun violence is not. The report examines why young men in the city carry firearms and states that “a key finding is that current public safety efforts, where law enforcement is the primary response to violent crime, exacerbate young people’s sense of urban siege.” This heightened perception of threat encourages them to carry weapons out of a sense that the police do not do a good job preventing violence and that they may need to protect themselves against police violence.
Furthermore, there is evidence right in Adams’ own city about the efficacy of substantially less punitive responses to gun possession. While the Adams plan calls on the state to make it easier to send 16- and 17-year-olds caught with guns to prison—a change state lawmakers have already said they will refuse to make—Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez runs a diversion program aimed at people ages 13 to 22 who are facing things like gun charges. The program, called Youth and Congregations in Partnership, appears to be fairly successful. By linking defendants with social workers and schooling, the program appears to both reduce reoffending and improve other life outcomes that address the deeper root causes of violence.
It’s important to note that Adams’ plan does include programs that seek non-police-centric ways to reduce gun violence, such as summer youth employment, which has strong empirical support. Again, unlike more punitive approaches to crime, these programs have significant benefits beyond crime reduction. And like the Philadelphia report, Adams pledges to expand hospital-based violence intervention programs. But these approaches are clearly not at the center of Adams’ vision for reducing gun violence.
Both the Philadelphia report and the CCI report suggest a better path forward. The sections of the Philadelphia report not written by the police—and especially those written by the Department of Public Health and the Defender Association—emphasize that the way to reduce gun violence is by confronting the deeper, structural causes of violence. Both reports emphasize support for programs such as housing support, protection against eviction, and drug treatment. Targeting these causes can take time, and gun violence is an immediate concern. But much of the data provided by the Philadelphia report, alongside the findings of the CCI study, caution that a broad-brush effort to stop the flow of guns may accomplish little on its own terms, and may even exacerbate some of the underlying causes of violence.