In focus: Arkadi Gerney, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress

Arkadi Gerney - Cropped

AOAV: Could you tell us a little bit about what the Center does and what you do within the Center?

Arkadi Gerney: The Center for American Progress is a progressive think-and-action tank, so it is both a think-tank and an advocacy group.  It covers many, many issues, and guns is one of them. I’m relatively new here; I’ve been at the Center for American Progress for nine months, but have worked on gun issues for many years.  I used to work for Mayor Bloomberg and ran the group that he started, Mayors Against Illegal Guns.  And you know, I would say that our focus is at the Center for American Progress covers both domestic and international security issues, but on the gun issue, we’ve been primarily focused on the domestic debate and challenges.

AOAV: Is there ever going to be a solution to the issue of gun violence in the United States?

AG: The solution, I think, for the United States has to be a solution that accepts that there is going to be lawful gun ownership.  And certainly if you want to reduce gun violence, banning all guns is an effective way to do that, and if you look at other countries, the countries that have done that have generally very low gun violence.  But I think that is not an option that is possible in the United States, and I think from the perspective of most people, it’s not desirable.  And so the question becomes, can we have a gun culture that doesn’t have as many of the collateral consequences?  And I think the answer is yes. I think there’s a lot of data to suggest that. [A] metaphor is automobiles…we’ve managed through a great variety of regulatory efforts to make driving much, much safer.

AOAV: What are the broad trends in both gun ownership and the impact in terms of deaths from guns and shootings?

AG:      Well, gun deaths have been relatively stable. The rate has decreased somewhat in the last 10 or 20 years, though not nearly at the rate that vehicle deaths are going down.  But they’re very substantial.  So there are about 12,000 gun murders in the US every year, 20,000 gun suicides, and about 1,000 gun accidents.  You put that all together and it’s a very large number.  We lose as many Americans just to gun murders every six months as we’ve lost in the entire Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  And you know, for the murders and the suicides, it tends to be young people: the core demographic for people getting murdered is 18 to 25… This is a killer of people in the prime of their lives.

AOAV: What other […] non-legislative or direct legislative approaches can you take to reduce gun violence?

AG: Starting with gun control, I think the key thing to recognize is that what we want is a comprehensive system of laws that has real and measurable barriers between the legal market for guns and the illegal market for guns.  And that those walls aren’t porous, that they’re enforceable, and that they are in fact enforced.  So I used to work for the city of New York.  New York is the safest big city in the country: of the 25 largest cities, it has the lowest crime rate.  It’s gone from in 1991 or ’92 having 2200 murders to last year having 419 and is on a pace to be even lower this year.  Gun enforcement is a piece of that.  New York’s laws are very tight…  And the consequences for illegal possession, which is sort of a slap on the wrist offense in most states, is very serious….  And the enforcement is significant.  So, you know, from tactics like stop and frisk, but many other tactics in New York City, it’s a high-risk enterprise to carry a gun illegally, and so a lot of people don’t.

AOAV: And is this situation of cause and effect – the massive drop from 2,200 a year to 400 and the concurrent rise in stricter laws, which to me would be cause and effect – are you challenged on that, that actually you can’t make those connections?

AG:     There’s been a big drop in crime in the United States, more so in some cities like New York, but across the entire country, there’s been a drop since the peak in the early 1990s.  And so the question of “why did that happen?” is a complicated one that’s been hotly debated.  But I think there is a consensus that laws and policing and enforcement are part of the story, and within that… gun enforcement I think is a very credible piece of the puzzle…  You know, the question that we want to answer is, in taking on those challenges, how much more dangerous is it when there’s a gun involved?  When there’s a gun present? And if you look at the United States compared to other highly industrialized countries, we don’t have a disproportionate amount of crime.  We don’t have a disproportionate amount of violent crime.  We have an unusual amount of murder, and there is no explanation other than guns for what is the primary driver of it.

AOAV: The compelling statistics, at least, if not the reasons behind it, in New York – has that attracted much outside attention from other states?  And is there any legal justification in the States whereby if something is shown to be of major public benefit then it gets escalated to a federal issue?

AG: You will hear people on the other side point to cities like Washington and Chicago and say, “Those cities have tough gun laws, but they have a lot of gun murders, so clearly gun control doesn’t work.”  But when you look across 50 states, and whether you control for urbanization, in this, you see that the states that have the weakest gun laws correlates with higher levels of gun violence.  And I think there’s been many, many studies to show that there is that impact.  The problem is that in New York City, 89% of guns used in crimes were originally sold in another state.  And so guns move across state borders, and for New York City, for example, or New York State, Virginia has for the last six or seven years been the leading source of guns used in crimes… And as tough as you can make the enforcement in New York or any other city… none of that enforcement is going to be perfect when it’s really easy to buy guns in a neighboring state.

AOAV: Do you get into legal complexities insofar as if a tourist is allowed to have a hidden pistol in Texas, and then he travels to New York, what’s the situation there?

AG: That’s a critical and hotly debated issue.  So in three states, if you’re able to buy a gun from a store, you can carry it anywhere you want.  But in every other state there’s a concealed carry permitting system… The permitting standards vary tremendously across states.  For example, should somebody who’s been convicted of a misdemeanor crime of violence… that’s not a felony, so you’re not a prohibited person under federal law.  But in many states, that will either prevent you from being able to buy a gun, or at the very least from receiving a permit to carry a concealed gun.  But in some states that’s not the case.

AOAV: Is there sufficient research into cause and effect in the issue of gun violence, in your opinion?  Or do you think that there’s been an issue related to the funding of such research?

AG: Yes, there’s been an issue.  So, you know, many years ago, I think more than 10 years ago, the gun lobby pushed into funding bills for the government, two restrictions… which basically said no research that promotes gun control can be funded.  So after the Newtown shootings, President Obama sent out essentially an executive order to the agencies that says that, research that evaluates gun violence is not promoting gun control, so go out and do research.  Nonetheless, over the ten years it’s had an enormous chilling effect to have those riders there… I think, you know, the debate has suffered from it.  …  Since Newtown, certainly because of the President’s executive order but also just because of the real renewed interest in it, there is more research underway, and I think we’ll have some fresher answers.  But a lot of the data that we’re relying on, especially at the federal level, is data from the Clinton administration.

AOAV: Particularly with an eye to maybe some direct experiences of – maybe even “dirty tricks,” if you will.  But I’d be interested to know, because it is such a hotly-contested issue.

AG: There is a lot of fear out there in the country that relates to guns and that relates to the notion that the government is going to come and take away the guns.  And who does that fear benefit? – is a good question.  And who drives that fear? You know, I think by and large it’s come from the gun lobby.  And I think it has served their ends of getting people riled up and getting them angry at their elected officials about things that their elected officials don’t want to do.

AOAV:  There’s strong evidence of a lot of American guns… appearing in drug-related violence in north Mexico.  It ceases to become just a national issue in this case.  Can you tell me a little bit about your organization’s position or your own personal position on the straw purchases that occur in southern Texas towns and also the issue of the sale of assault rifles?

AG: I think that the most important reforms for American gun laws will both reduce gun deaths and gun trafficking within the United States and the collateral consequences outside of the United States. …We don’t have strong enough laws in a variety of ways to combat straw purchasing, and in general the weak regulation of the secondary market for guns.  So it would be illegal for me to go to a gun store in Texas with the express purpose in advance of buying a gun for you.  However, it would be legal for me to go to a gun store in Texas and decide two days later to resell it to you.  That would be a private sale, and I wouldn’t have to do a background check on you, so if you’re a felon or a Mexican arms trafficker, that wouldn’t be a problem.  Background checks on all gun sales, record-keeping of those secondary transactions, tougher penalties for straw purchasing and gun trafficking: all of those things will reduce gun violence.

As to assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and the like, you know, I think it’s a somewhat harder issue.  For example, if you want to have a machine gun, you have to get a highly regulated special license with a lot of record-keeping.  But at a certain point, there are certain…  toys that boys can’t have.  You know, stinger missiles and anti-tank missiles…  Is it reasonable to draw the line at a 15-round magazine?  Is it reasonable to draw the line at certain semiautomatic assault rifles?  I think that’s where the debate is.

AOAV: What arguments, if any, do you hear from the NRA and the gun lobby that are the most difficult or the most compelling?  I mean, what do they say that you have the most difficulty or the hardest time in coming back against?

AG: Well, I think there are a lot of things they say that are sort of true, but they just don’t answer – they don’t lead to the result the NRA would like.  So for example, they will say, you know, “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.”  That’s mostly true, or the interaction of people and guns kill people.  So fundamentally what we’re trying to do is keep guns away from people who shouldn’t have them.

AOAV: I mean, you can’t really blame a five-year-old who accidentally shoots his sister.  You blame it on the gun, don’t you?

AG: Yeah.  There it seems like the gun is certainly part of the consequence.  I mean, you can blame a 25-year-old felon who shoots somebody with a gun, but probably you should wonder, “Why did that guy have a gun in the first place?” The other thing they say is that, you know, new gun control laws are bad because that only puts new restrictions on the law-abiding, and criminals don’t follow the law… But having sensible, enforceable laws is how you sort criminals from non-criminals.  …If the consequences are serious and if there’s a reasonable prospect that you might get caught, it fundamentally changes behavior.