Meet the law enforcement allies in the fight for gun safety

Retired ATF agent Mark Jones explains to a Democratic group in suburban Chicago about the importance of state-level gun dealer licensing. (Photo by Todd Bannor/bannorbannor.com)

When it comes to common-sense gun safety laws, at least some major players in law enforcement are on the same page as the rest of the country.

The National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence is made up of nine different police leadership organizations, including groups representing African-American, Hispanic, and women command officers. Its website lists several solutions that a growing number of Americans agree should be enacted:

  • Requiring universal background checks for all gun purchasers.
  • Strengthening NICS, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
  • Limiting the size of high-capacity ammunition magazines to 10 rounds.
  • Opposing federal preemption of state laws governing the carry of concealed weapons.
  • Strengthening the penalties for straw purchases of guns.
  • Making firearms trafficking a federal crime.
  • Banning or regulating firearms accessories designed to circumvent federal law, such as bump stocks, trigger activators, suppressors/silencers, and similar products.

In addition, seven of the nine groups also support banning the sale of new semi-automatic assault-style weapons and passing “red flag” laws, which allow officials to temporarily remove guns from people who threaten to commit violence against themselves or others.

There are approximately 900,000 sworn police officers (meaning those with powers to make an arrest) in 18,000 police agencies in the United States, and they’ve got a variety of opinions on gun laws. Polling on what police think about gun safety laws specifically is spotty and varied.

One poll reports that 82 percent of police chiefs favor background checks before any weapons purchase. Other polls say that 86 percent of police chiefs favor concealed carry, and that large numbers of rank-and-file police officers oppose bans on sales of high-capacity magazines. The most recent polling from the Pew Research Center shows that two-thirds of police oppose a ban on assault-style weapons, contrasted with a similar number of the public in favor of such a ban.

What the National Law Enforcement Partnership group does, as its website says, is to “inform elected officials and the public of the policies we need to better protect our nation.” The partnership, which covers the majority of police command groups representing chiefs, executives, and command staff, supports progressive gun violence and firearm safety proposals. And although the partnership itself is nonpartisan, those proposals are coming from Democrats.

Mark Jones is project director for the National Law Enforcement Partnership group. He spent 31 years in law enforcement, including serving on a local police department in suburban Chicago, five years working in the diplomatic security service for the State Department, and 21 years with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, including a stint as a regional firearms adviser to fight firearms trafficking in Central America. He retired from the ATF in 2011. Then he turned his attention to fighting gun violence. “There’s a cadre of retired ATF guys working with gun [safety] groups,” he said.

Jones spent the next few years as an expert witness testifying in favor of several gun safety laws that were challenged in court, all of which won; as a law enforcement adviser at the University of Chicago Crime Lab, which does research on reducing crime and violence; and at SST Inc., whose ShotSpotter technology uses acoustic sensors to provide police in nearly 90 cities around the country with pinpointed geographic data on where guns have been fired. He joined the National Law Enforcement Partnership group two years ago.

The partnership is a nonpartisan, 501(c)(3) organization. Its operations are run through the Police Foundation, mostly through grants. While small, it has a big job in working against gun violence.

Jones said he often is solicited by gun safety groups because “they want to know what law enforcement thinks.” These are chapters of groups such as Everytown for Gun Safety, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, and Giffords, the organization run by former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords, who was severely injured in 2011 when she was shot in the head during a constituent event near Tucson. A big part of his job is teaching about strategy and about firearms themselves.

“We call it a guns 101 presentation,” Jones said. “We do a very basic overview on what kinds of guns exist, what obstacles they’re likely to face in the fight against gun violence.” Often, he said, Second Amendment advocates fire “gotcha” questions at gun safety advocates in hopes of proving that gun safety groups are too ignorant to be taken seriously. “It’s not a clip; it’s a magazine,” is one such example.

“We’re educating people who otherwise have no such knowledge,” Jones said. He likened getting into those kinds of “gotcha” arguments with gun rights backers to “wresting with a pig in the mud.”

“We want policy decisions that will keep our families safe,” he added. “We want to arm advocates with facts,” such as information about the numbers of women who are shot each year by domestic abusers.

Jones is not against gun ownership. “I’ve been shooting since I was 9 years old,” he said. What he does object to is the lack of standards on the issuance of concealed-carry permits to people without any safety training. That lack of regulation is why the partnership objects to proposals for national reciprocity on concealed-carry laws.

Jones’ current focus is passing the Combating Illegal Gun Trafficking Act in Illinois, which would require all gun dealers to have state licenses. The bill passed easily in the Illinois Senate this week on a 35-18 vote and now heads to the Illinois House. The legislation is about gun dealers’ licenses, but the intent of the bill is to make sure legally-sold guns don’t get re-sold in a straw purchase to criminals who otherwise aren’t able to buy a gun.

A similar bill was passed in the Illinois Legislature earlier this year, only to be vetoed by Gov. Bruce Rauner. Rauner was in a close GOP primary race for renomination—his primary opponent voted against the bill, and Rauner bowed to pressure and refused to sign it. Instead of holding a vote to override the veto, the bill’s sponsors, including State Sen. Don Harmon, who has been working on this issue since 2003, chose to tweak the bill to answer some concerns and to increase bipartisan support.

One big reason the bill finally moved ahead at all was because of Jones’ testimony last year in front of state House and Senate Judiciary committees. His expertise on guns convinced enough lawmakers that such gun dealer licensure was necessary so that the bill moved ahead after 15 years of non-movement.

Although it’s true that gun dealers must have federal licenses, the ATF lacks the money and personnel to oversee them all. The production of guns more than doubled during the eight years of the Obama administration, and 9,000 new gun dealers went into business. Last year, Jones said, ATF agents were able to perform checks on only 11 percent of gun dealers nationally, and only 6 percent of gun dealers in Illinois. Some gun dealers have never been inspected at all. According to a story on Huffington Post:

The ATF’s budget, which includes funds for monitoring the network of gun manufacturers, wholesalers, and dealers, has increased only slightly amid the recent boom, and it has remained unchanged at $1.25 billion over the last few years. The agency hasn’t had a Senate-confirmed director since 2015, and, as The New York Times reported, the National Rifle Association has been part of a campaign to ensure that the ATF remains a small agency grappling with a wide-reaching set of duties, including prosecuting gun crimes, combating gun violence and trafficking, and regulating firearm commerce in the U.S.

“The ATF gets hobbled by Congress,” Jones said. “There are giant holes in the system right now. About 22 percent of all transactions receive no official scrutiny.

“The firearms industry has convinced Congress that ATF shouldn’t share data,” he added. “We need to do it at the state level. We need our own state ATF so that if lots of guns used in crimes are traced back to a specific dealer, we can say, ‘We’re pulling your certificate now.’ With ATF, it could take up to five years.”

Jones said the National Law Enforcement Partnership group hopes to get more police rank-and-file organizations to back its gun-safety proposals, but there is opposition. For instance, the Fraternal Order of Police, which endorsed Trump in 2016, is definitely not on board.

“Police need to take a more clear-eyed view of the firearms industry than what the industry shows them,” he said, adding that most police officers don’t really want a heavily armed populace. “I don’t think most cops actually think that. We don’t want armed civilians to stick their noses in police business.

“The bottom line is, we don’t want the firearms industry making policy for American citizens, which is what’s happening now,” Jones said.

Originally posted on Daily Kos, May 20, 2018.

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