We Need A Sense of Urgency to Curb Gun Violence


This opinion piece first was published in the DailyMemphian.com

Our nation and our own community are awash with guns and plagued by an unacceptable level of gun violence. Nationwide, we have witnessed horrific mass shootings at schools, places of worship, and commercial establishments. And in many cities, gun violence has become an everyday way of life.

Memphis has one of the highest violent crime rates in the nation. In the last decade (since 2011), according to figures from the Memphis Police Department, the number of reported incidents involving guns in Memphis has more than doubled. And last year, over 70 percent of all reported violent incidents in Memphis involved guns. It’s a statewide challenge.

According to FBI crime figures, Tennessee has the third highest violent crime rate among the 50 states.

Last year, over 300 Memphians lost their lives to violence, with over 80 percent being at the hands of guns. That includes over 30 children.

There is no one easy, quick answer to the challenge of gun violence, but there are some common sense steps that could make a significant dent.

Here are a few to consider:

1. At the federal level, close the current loophole by requiring a background check for all commercial purchases of guns. Polls show the vast majority of gun owners support universal background checks for the commercial purchase of guns. This should be a no-brainer. Congress should act!

2. Also at the federal level, prohibit the sale of high capacity magazines that can hold more than a certain number of rounds of ammunition. It serves no legitimate purpose to commercially sell magazines with the high capacity we have available today.

3. At the state level, re-enact a mandatory handgun permit system which requires a background check and training in order to carry a handgun in public. We are baffled as to why the Tennessee General Assembly eliminated the mandatory permit system in 2021, a system under which over a half million Tennesseans had been issued permits with proper background checks and training.

4. At the state or federal level, enact an Extreme Risk Protection Order law – commonly referred to as a “red flag law” – that will allow law enforcement and family members to seek court orders temporarily restricting individuals deemed to be dangerous to themselves or others from possessing firearms. Today, 13 states have such laws on the books.

5. Ensure that those who are convicted of gun crimes face tough sentences. This can incapacitate them for longer periods of time and serve as a deterrent to others. The Tennessee General Assembly took a significant step this year by enacting truth in sentencing legislation for conviction of serious, violent offenses, most of which involve guns. Those convicted will no longer be eligible for early release through parole. The legislation did leave one loophole that legislators need to address next year. Most aggravated assaults are committed with guns, and the new law will apply to those convicted of aggravated assault who are incarcerated. However, under current state law, many will still be eligible for probation with no incarceration whatsoever. For aggravated assaults involving serious bodily injury or discharge of a firearm, enact legislation requiring incarceration, thereby eliminating the possibility of probation.

6. Place a heavy state or federal sales tax on ammunition. For those needing to purchase ammunition for legitimate purposes such as hunting or self protection, most will be willing to pay more for those legitimate and limited purposes.

7. State law requires every school system to develop a safety plan annually. In the past, many school systems across the state have not taken this obligation seriously enough, using boiler plate
provisions and “cut and paste” language from other systems’ plans. Every school system should develop a plan each year tailored specifically to its needs and that includes a provision requiring the local law enforcement agency that will respond to an emergency situation to review and inspect its implementation in each school. The state’s Department of Education and Department of Safety and Homeland Security should carefully review each plan annually to either approve or disapprove the plan, with suggested improvements where appropriate.

8. Much of our gun violence is retaliatory in nature. Locally, we need to scale up (a) the current focused deterrence effort, which places special focus on repeat violent offenders, and (b) Mayor Jim Strickland’s violence intervention program, which works with the 901 BLOC Squad and hospitals to head off retaliation in our neighborhoods and on our streets and with the school system to head off any retaliatory acts on school property.

9. Many guns end up in the wrong hands by being stolen from vehicles. According to the Memphis Police Department (MPD) there were 2,023 guns reported stolen from vehicles in Memphis in 2021
compared to 1,324 in 2020, a disturbing 53 percent increase in one year. There were only 358 reported guns stolen from vehicles in Memphis in 2013, the year before the Tennessee General Assembly enacted legislation legally allowing handguns in vehicles without a permit. That’s a 465 percent increase in just eight years! According to MPD, almost 60 percent of reported guns stolen in 2021 were stolen from vehicles. MPD also estimates that about 40 percent of guns used in crimes have been stolen from vehicles. Eight states and several cities have laws mandating that owners secure their guns when they leave them in vehicles. Absent a mandatory law, locally, we need a concerted campaign to convince law-abiding citizens not to leave unsecured firearms in vehicles.

The entities with which we are currently affiliated have not, for the most part, taken positions on the steps mentioned above. To the extent they have not, we stress that these steps represent our personal views only. Some of these steps would restrict access to guns and ammunition. For those who would argue that such steps are unconstitutional violations of the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment, we disagree. As noted by the late Justice Antonin Scalia in the 2008 U.S. Supreme Court decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, “. . . the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited. From Blackstone through the 19th century cases, commentators and courts have routinely explained that the right was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purposes.”

Both of us have been around for a while. We are not naive about the difficulty in taking many of the steps we’ve mentioned. Some will require a commitment of resources. Others will require courage on the part of elected officials. It is time to have a serious discussion, though, about steps we can take to tackle our gun violence epidemic. We don’t need to panic but do need to have a sense of urgency.

E. Winslow “Buddy” Chapman serves as executive director of CrimeStoppers and served formerly as director of the Memphis Police Department. Bill Gibbons serves as president of the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission and as executive director of the Public Safety Institute at the University of Memphis. Formerly, he served as district attorney for Shelby County and as commissioner of the TN Department of Safety and Homeland Security.