The mayor of Toledo hopes a new ethical approach to gun procurement will change attitudes © ABACA/PA Images
The mayor of Toledo hopes a new ethical approach to gun procurement will change attitudes © ABACA/PA Images

Can better procurement reduce US gun deaths?

7 January 2019

Wade Kapszukiewicz, the mayor of Toledo, has had enough.

Convinced that Congressional lawmakers “don’t care” about the bloodshed on America’s streets – and believing that gun makers don’t want to step up and help – he has declared that, from this year, his city, the fourth-largest in the midwest state of Ohio, will only buy weapons for its police officers from “responsible” suppliers.

Outside America, the very idea of responsible gun makers might seem like an oxymoron. Yet the Democratic mayor hopes that the city’s new ethical approach to gun procurement will change attitudes. He admits he’d rather see a much broader approach to gun control and violence but says: “Just because we can’t do everything doesn’t mean we should do nothing.”

Toledo will decide which companies to buy weapons from by analysing their response to a series of questions. The list is still being refined – Kapszukiewicz openly admits it needs work – but it could include the following queries:

•  Do you make assault weapons for civilian use?

•  Do you sell assault weapons for civilian use?

•  Which firearms does your company agree not to sell to civilians?

•  Do you require your dealers to conduct background checks?

•  Do you have a plan in place to invest in gun and ammunition-tracing technologies?

•  Do you use, at a minimum, industry best practice for inventory control and transactions?

Being able to trace bullets and guns with an identifying mark should make it easier to track their illicit use – and to identify killers.

As the National Rifle Association has pointed out, dealers are already required to conduct background checks. But the system is not perfect. Nikolas Cruz, the shooter alleged to have killed 17 people in Parkland, Florida, last St Valentine’s Day, passed the check to buy an AK-47 even though he had been expelled from school for bad behaviour, explicitly threatened other pupils and posed with guns and knives online. Background checks also only apply if a gun is bought from a federally-licensed dealer rather than someone who buys and sells guns occasionally as a hobby.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has recommended additional best practices for licensed gun dealers but it does not have the power to enforce them fully.

The NRA says that Kapszukiewicz’s proposal is merely proof that “bad ideas have a way of recurring in gun control circles”. The powerful lobby group accused the mayor of “playing politics with police officer safety”. Noting that Toledo was the 15th most violent city in the US, the NRA said: “Residents need to know their public servants are getting the best, most appropriate equipment the city can afford, free from additional constraints imposed by politics, ideology and ignorance.”

This is pretty mild for the NRA, but it is true that Kapszukiewicz’s idea might be hard to implement. In 2011, Michael Bloomberg, the then Mayor of New York, rejected a call to boycott gun maker Glock because it made “high capacity” weapons, explaining that, as all three of the companies supplying the NYPD made high capacity weapons, “We’d probably have to boycott all of them and then you go back to the days when the crooks had better guns than the cops.” That is the fear the NRA is spotlighting in its opposition to Toledo’s mayor, who insists he is only trying to incentivise gun makers to improve their practices – and has the backing of his police chief.

Toledo doesn’t spend much on police weapons – around $175,000 a year – but the idea is now being studied by John Cranley, the mayor of Cincinnati, who chairs the US Conference of Mayors taskforce on policing.

At the Conference of Mayors meeting next year, Cranley has said he expects “broad-based support to come up with a good behaviour model that a majority of us could sign up for”. If Toledo’s approach finds favour, the orders at stake would run into tens of millions of dollars.

Could ethical procurement reduce fatalities? Gun control is an issue that many American politicians have recoiled from as too difficult or career-threatening – in 2016, the NRA spent an estimated $54m to help ensure Republican control of Congress and the Presidency – or both.

The enduring debate about the meaning of the Second Amendment has stymied many attempts to reform America’s gun laws. Yet cities and states may decide that a tougher approach to firearm purchasing, which encourages gun makers to adopt – and improve – best practice, could help reduce violence without violating the constitution.

If nothing else, a Toledo-style approach will put gun makers in spotlight. As indeed will a campaign by nuns in Ontario belonging to the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. They have won shareholders’ backing for proposals forcing gun makers Smith & Wesson and Sturm Ruger to report on gun violence related to their products and how their weapons can be made safer.

So far, gun manufacturers have been able to use the Second Amendment as a shield, to avoid answering blunt questions about the way they do business.

Kapszukiewicz’s plan – and the campaign inspiring ‘nuns v guns’ headlines –may make that shield a little less effective.

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