Phila. gun control program is working But lawmakers are threatening to cut its funding.

Posted: April 01, 2010

A man convicted of buying a .38-caliber handgun and illegally selling it to a drug dealer faced sentencing in a Philadelphia courtroom last month. The crime had led to considerable anguish: The dealer had used the gun to murder his girlfriend, and then he turned it on himself. One straw purchaser, one illegal gun transfer - and two deaths by gunfire.

Arguing for a stiff sentence, the prosecutor noted that straw purchasers never have prior criminal records, which is why they are able to buy guns for people who do. The judge noted the "harm caused in this city and this state by illegal straw purchasing" and sentenced the gun buyer to 11 to 23 months in jail.

This is the hard work, week in and week out, of the men and women of the Philadelphia Gun Violence Task Force. The task force is a team of local prosecutors and detectives from the state Attorney General's Office who investigate and prosecute straw gun purchases and sales - crimes that fuel the violence plaguing Philadelphia and other communities across Pennsylvania.

By any standard, the Gun Violence Task Force has been successful, making a substantial dent in illegal gun trafficking in Philadelphia. Despite this success, its work is now threatened by state budget cuts.

The task force was created and funded by a $5 million state grant in 2006, but the budget approved by the state House last week would cut its funding by $2 million. That's a 40 percent hit to a program that's actually doing something about gun crime.

Since its inception in December 2006, the task force has opened 1,275 investigations, made 408 arrests, and seized 761 guns. To date, it has convicted 183 people of straw purchasing and other gun-trafficking offenses. In addition, it has helped the city's police solve numerous shootings, burglaries, robberies, and homicides.

CeaseFirePA, our statewide gun-violence prevention organization, is advocating an expansion of this task force to other communities with a need for this kind of focused policing and prosecution of the illegal gun trade.

Because we believe not only in reasonably strengthening our handgun laws, but also in enforcing those already on the books, our organization has also begun a new courtroom monitoring project. It's working with the task force to make sure illegal gun traffickers get sentences commensurate with the real harm they inflict on the city.

In another recent case we monitored, a defendant was sentenced to jail for buying 26 handguns and illegally selling them - all to criminals. One of the guns was used in a homicide. Ten remain on the streets.

In another case, a defendant convicted of buying two handguns and illegally selling them to a criminal was sentenced to jail as well. Before imposing the sentence in that case, Judge Ellen Ceisler said: "Twelve hundred gun deaths a year in Pennsylvania, the vast majority of those deaths committed with illegally obtained handguns. We have to send a message. There's a war zone in our city. This must stop."

Even given the slow economy and sluggish state revenues, the General Assembly and Gov. Rendell should restore the task force's full funding. We've also asked every candidate for governor in this year's election to support full funding of the task force and an expansion of the program to other communities across the state.

We support reasonable reform of gun laws as well as focused enforcement of existing laws, two strategies that complement one another to make Pennsylvania safer and get illegal guns off our streets. Programs such as the Gun Violence Task Force help achieve those goals, and they need resources to do the job.

Phil Goldsmith is the board president of CeaseFirePA, where Joe Grace is executive director. They can be reached at Pgold4110@gmail.com and Joe.Grace@CeaseFirePA.org.

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