Addressing Gun Violence:  Guiding Principles for Policymakers

Addressing Gun Violence:  Guiding Principles for Policymakers

NCSL Law and Criminal Justice Committee Report -- May 2005


At the National Conference of State Legislatures' (NCSL) Fall Forum in Savannah, Georgia, in December 2004, the Law and Criminal Justice Committee convened a program to discuss gun control issues. At the federal level, Congress had recently enacted legislation that limits the liability of gun manufacturers. Also in Washington, the federal ban on assault weapons was expiring. The session presented contrasting views on how state and federal policymakers should respond to these issues.

The committee was honored to have U.S. Representative Carolyn McCarthy of the 4th Congressional District in New York speak to the group. Her family tragedy as a result of gun violence has influenced her views, which she took to the U.S. Congress. Joining her on the panel was Lawrence Keane, vice president and general counsel for the National Shooting Sport Foundation. Information and viewpoints they presented prompted spirited discussion by committee members on these issues.

Following that program, the suggestion was made to NCSL’s president, Delegate John Hurson of Maryland, and the Law and Criminal Justice Committee chair, Senator Michael Balboni of New York, that the committee convene lawmakers for additional discussion on gun violence. The NCSL leaders agreed, and in early 2005 a working group of interested legislators was assembled. The group met at NCSL’s Spring Forum on April 14, 2005, in Washington, D.C. A half-day program included statistical and federal overviews and a facilitated discussion to identify state interests, issues and approaches.

The work group discussion transcended typical ideological discord on gun policy and, instead, identified some consensus on state interests. The principles that came out of the Law and Criminal Justice Committee working group discussion recognize the different contexts in which states address gun issues and speak with one voice on the need to set a high standard for preemption of state laws. The guiding principles are offered to help inform future work of the committee and to inspire and advance discussions in states toward the objective of safer communities.

Issues Overview

According to data compiled by the Bureau of Justice Statistics of the U.S. Department of Justice, violent crime rates in the United States have declined steadily since 1994, and by 2003 reached the lowest level ever recorded. Homicide rates recently declined to levels last seen in the late 1960s. Murders are down even in large cities with populations of 1 million and more. Still, almost one-quarter of all homicides in the United States occur in those cities, and statistics also show that blacks are disproportionately represented among homicide victims and offenders.  (Information from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, D.C., Crime Facts at a Glance, Crime Characteristics.)

Homicides are most often committed with guns—especially handguns—according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Homicides committed by teens and young adults are most likely to involve guns. Even though the surge in youth gun crime that occurred in the early 1990s has dropped off substantially, gun homicides among young people remain higher than non-gun murders. In some urban areas, this problem is particularly pervasive. In Pennsylvania, where the General Assembly is working with law enforcement officials to consider solutions to gun violence in Philadelphia, it is reported that firearm-related assaults increased by 7 percent between 1999 and 2003. The highest firearm death rate in Pennsylvania was among black men ages 20 to 24, and was about 30 times higher than that for white men. (Information from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, D.C., Homicide Trends in the United States and the statistics are from unpublished material provided by the Pennsylvania General Assembly, “Firearm-Related Injuries Due to Assaults, Resident Deaths, Pennsylvania 1999-2003”).

Reasons for declines in overall violent crime rates nationally are subject to criminological debate, as are the causes of persistent violence in some cities. The Bureau of Justice Statistics notes that more than half of the increase in state prison populations since 1995 is due to an increase in prisoners who are convicted of a violent crime. The director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Lawrence Greenfeld, says this and other research support an incapacitation approach that reduces crime by keeping more violent offenders off the streets longer. Indeed, many state sentencing policies of the 1990s were designed to do that, especially the significant number of state “truth” laws that require that serious and violent offenders serve at least 85 percent of the sentence given before they are released.  (Information from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, DC., Social Statistics Briefing Room, Corrections Facts at a Glance and see NCSL's LegisBrief - Lyons, Donna, “Truth in Sentencing” LegisBrief, 7, no. 21, (July/August 1999) National Conference of State Legislatures.)

Drug enforcement and interdiction and a reduction in the crack cocaine epidemic that gripped cities from about the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s also are credited with reductions in violent crime. Prosecution, deterrence and prevention strategies such as the Justice Department’s Project Safe Neighborhoods are having an effect in many cities. In addition, state juvenile justice reforms and investments in research- and risk-based responses to youth delinquency and crime show promise in countering a culture of violence that often involves guns. (Information from Golub, Andrew Lang and Johnson, Bruce D., “Cracks Decline: Some Surprises Across U.S. Cities, National Institute of Justice, U.S. Department of Justice, Research in Brief, July 1997 and National Conference of State Legislators, Comprehensive Juvenile Justice: A Legislator’s Guide, Denver, Colo., second edition, 1999.)

In Pennsylvania, a “Blueprint for a Safer Philadelphia” is targeting prevention efforts at middle school youths; encouraging community services to at-risk youths; deploying more police officers to work with state and federal officials; and using gun courts, zone courts and sentencing strategies for armed drug crimes. Project Safe Neighborhoods also is at work there as part of the multi-jurisdictional approach against gun violence.  (Information from unpublished material from Pennsylvania General Assembly “Blueprint for a Safer Philadelphia: First Year Progress Report --Updated April 12, 2005.)

This variety of approaches is reflected in the guiding principles that follow.

Addressing Gun Violence:  Guiding Principles for Policymakers

Local, state and regional distinctions in problems associated with gun violence are suitably reflected in policy. The role of state legislatures is crucial in responding to these issues in the cultural, political and social contexts in which they occur. Federal approaches designed to be generally applicable typically are counter to tailored state solutions and to NCSL federalism policy.

Appropriate federal leadership in addressing violence is important to states. This includes initiatives that produce federal, state and local cooperation in enforcement, prosecution and human services; that support research and evaluation in crime and delinquency; that help train and equip personnel in criminal justice systems; and others. The federal government is urged not to undercut funding for, and progress of, proven intergovernmental efforts.

At all levels of government, record keeping and reporting on crimes, arrests and offenders are vital to a factual framework for guiding policy and applying resources where they can do the most good. Local and state law enforcement entities are urged to participate, as resources allow, in the uniform crime reporting of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The incident-based reporting system then can furnish comprehensive and detailed information about nearly every major crime issue, including weapon-involved crimes, to legislators, planners and others.

Laws that prohibit certain individuals from gun possession or provide for concealed carry of weapons must have integrity and vigorous enforcement. Restrictions and requirements should be supported with information systems that capably identify felony records and other status that are provided for under law. At the same time, policies and procedures should be in accordance with laws that provide for confidentiality of juvenile and medical records and with safeguards that are in place to ensure that system records are accurate and secure.

Local, state and federal officials should work collaboratively to address diversion of otherwise legal firearms to the illegal market where often they are sold to people who are prohibited under state and federal laws from possessing guns. States should review the effects of gun trafficking on in-state and interstate violent crime and consider how state law complements federal law to investigate and prosecute illegal gun trade.

Legislatures should provide knowledgeable leadership on all matters that affect criminal sentencing, including those policies that incapacitate offenders who use guns to commit crimes and victimize others. Interbranch input and cooperation can help inform and guide those efforts and facilitate effective policy-to-practice.

Today, more and better information is available than ever before on “what works” to address delinquency, crime and rehabilitation. Research that has identified risk factors for violent crime and evaluated effectiveness of responses can and should inform policymakers and practitioners. Crime prevention and intervention can appropriately include families, schools, community and faith-based groups in addressing known links between crime and poverty, child abuse, exposure to violence, drugs and weapons.

The needs of individuals and families who have been victims of gun violence are substantial and complex. States should consider the role of and services to victims as part of their response to gun violence.


NCSL’s Standing Committee on Law and Criminal Justice expresses gratitude to the officers and members of the committee, listed previously, who participated with the working group, reviewed drafts and provided comment for this report. NCSL acknowledges and thanks Senator Michael Balboni of New York, chair of the Law and Criminal Justice Committee, for his leadership and, with committee staff chair Marti Harkness of Florida, for facilitating the working group discussion. Thanks also to Representative Harold James of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for raising this issue and for contributing state experience and knowledge to the discussion. Committee vice chairs Representative Janice Pauls of Kansas, Representative John Tholl of New Hampshire, and Ms. Susan McNamee of Maryland, also are gratefully acknowledged for their participation with the working group.

Law and Criminal Justice Committee

NCSL’s Standing Committee on Law and Criminal Justice has a broad jurisdiction that includes federalism and preemption issues, constitution and constitutional law, civil rights and liability issues. The many criminal justice issues under the Committee’s jurisdiction include capital punishment, corrections, crime victims, drug crime, juvenile justice, law enforcement, probation and parole and criminal sentencing. The Committee addresses underlying principles for a balanced state-federal system and takes policy positions to preserve state sovereignty and set a high standard for preemption of state laws. The Committee’s federalism policy states the overall philosophy of NCSL with regard to American federalism, and includes sections on preemption, grant conditions and mandates, sovereign immunity and criminal jurisdiction within the purview of the states. Other policies, some joint with other Standing Committees, include crime and justice, identity security, crime records and information, child support enforcement, faith-based initiatives, government regulations and takings under the Fifth Amendment, correctional industries, enforcement of civil immigration law, medical malpractice and tort reform.

Committee Members

Committee Chair:  The Honorable Michael Balboni, State Senator - New York

Committee Vice Chairs:  The Honorable Janice Pauls, State Representative - Kansas and The Honorable John Tholl, Jr., State Representative - New Hampshire

Committee Legislative Staff Chair:  Marti Harkness, Staff Director - Criminal Justice - OPPAGA

Committee Legislative Staff Vice Chair:  Susan McNamee, Department of Legislative Services - Maryland

Legislator Members:  

The Honorable George Bagby
State Representative

The Honorable Ann Marie Doory
State Delegate and Vice Chair
House Economic Matters Committee

The Honorable H. Morgan Griffith
House Majority Leader

The Honorable Phil Haire
State Representative
North Carolina

The Honorable Harold James
State Representative

The Honorable John Vratil
Vice President of the Senate

The Honorable LeAnna M. Washington
State Representative

Legislative Staff Members:

Tony Beard Jr.
Sergeant At Arms
State Senate - California

M. Renee LaMark Muir
Principal Analyst, Legislative Review and
Investigation Committee

Erik Randolph
Staff to the Honorable Dwight Evans
Democratic Chair, House Appropriations Committee

Vernon Smith
Staff to the Honorable Dwight Evans
District Office - Philadelphia

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