The Opinion Pages | OP-ED CONTRIBUTORS
Here's a Way to Control Guns
NEARLY three years ago, in the days after the mass killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, President Obama went to Newtown, Conn., to speak at a vigil for the victims. He spoke movingly, and seemed to embody the nation's outrage and its determination to reduce the number of people killed with guns in America. "Do not lose heart," he told the families of the victims. He said he would use "whatever power this office holds."
He has not done that. He tried one lever of presidential power — proposing legislation. When that didn't work, the president failed to move the other levers in a meaningful way.
For more than a year, we and fellow religious leaders across the nation have worked to persuade President Obama to use what we believe is the most powerful tool government has in this area: its purchasing power. The federal government is the nation's top gun buyer. It purchases more than a quarter of the guns and ammunition sold legally in the United States. State and local law enforcement agencies also purchase a large share. Major gun manufacturers depend on these taxpayer-funded purchases. For the government to keep buying guns from these companies — purchases meant to ensure public safety — without making demands for change is to squander its leverage.
Some of the leading brands of handguns purchased by the government — Glock, Smith & Wesson, Sig Sauer, Beretta, Colt, Sturm, Ruger & Company — are also leading brands used in crimes. Among the brands of handguns recovered by the Chicago Police Department at crime scenes between January 2012 and October 2013, all six of these companies ranked in the top 11. When police officers carrying Glocks are recovering Glocks at crime scenes on a regular basis, shouldn't this prompt questions about whether the police department could use its influence to reduce the number of guns that end up in the hands of criminals? When Smith & Wessons turn up frequently in the hands of criminals, shouldn't questions be asked when Smith & Wesson seeks a contract with the federal government?
What could gun manufacturers do to protect the public?
They could distribute their guns exclusively through dealers that sell guns responsibly, and end their relationships with the small percentage of bad-apple dealers that sell a disproportionate number of the guns used in crimes. They could produce "smart guns" that can be fired only by authorized users, and that therefore are far less likely to be used in accidental or intentional shootings. These measures, over time, would prevent many thousands of deaths.
But companies will innovate in these areas only if their major customers ask them to.
The president can push companies to compete in the area of safer guns and more responsible distribution. Here's how to start.
First, use federal purchasing power to begin a substantive conversation with gun manufacturers. The Pentagon is in the process of selecting the provider of handguns for the United States Army. It should require all bidders to provide detailed information about their gun safety technologies and distribution practices in the civilian market. No response, no contract.
Second, work with companies to develop new models of distribution, such as through dealers certified by the industry as reputable.The F.B.I. should do likewise. In his forthright statement on how Dylann Roof obtained the gun used to murder churchgoers in Charleston without having a completed background check, the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, explained that gun dealers have the discretion to execute a sale — or not — if a background check isn't completed within three days. The next logical step, in our view, is for Mr. Comey to ask the F.B.I.'s firearms suppliers to stop doing business with dealers who won't agree to use that discretion to protect the public.
Third, rescue the federal government's smart-gun research efforts from oblivion. Tens of millions of research dollars are needed to help get promising safety technologies to market.
Fourth, develop a set of metrics for measuring manufacturers' performance. We might measure, for instance, the number of a manufacturer's guns found at crime scenes, as a percentage of their overall sales.
Let's give gun manufacturers an incentive to make more smart guns and to allow fewer guns into the hands of criminals.
The Rev. David K. Brawley, the Rev. Otis Moss III, the Rev. David Benke and Rabbi Joel Mosbacher are members of the Metro Industrial Areas Foundation, aimed at building power for social change.