Topeka's mayor at CityLab DC.
Topeka Mayor Michelle de la Isla. Kristoffer Tripplaar

In the face of federal inaction, mayors are increasingly trying gun policies that are tailored to their geography.

The year before last was awful for Topeka. In 2017, the small city in northeast Kansas saw a record number of homicides. Nearly all of those 29 deaths were the result of lethal shootings, and in every one of the incidents involving guns, the victim was a person of color.

Topeka Mayor Michelle de la Isla points to gang violence as the spur behind those deaths, but that isn’t the only kind of gun problem that has wracked Topeka. She recalled a text alert she received from her daughter about an active shooting at her school.

“When you talk to children, to youth, absolutely—with college students, they’re concerned,” de la Isla says, referring to attitudes in Topeka around guns. “I don’t think that the adults are quite as keyed in as our young people are to this issue,” she said during a panel at the CityLab DC conference.

With Congress punting year after year on passing any significant gun legislation, it falls squarely on governors, mayors, and county executives to do something about guns. But the gun problem isn’t a monolith. Local leaders are facing not one crisis but many, and what that crisis looks like can vary considerably by place.

De la Isla was joined by two other mayors, San Jose’s Sam Liccardo and Louisville’s Greg Fischer, who are just as pressed as de la Isla to deal with the rising toll of gun violence in their own communities. But while San Jose is pursuing innovative legislation to ban straw purchases and even require gun owners to carry liability insurance, Louisville can’t do much more than wave the bloody shirt. During the CityLab panel, Fischer held up a bleeding-control kit from the University of Louisville Hospital that he frequently carries with him.

“People are like, ‘This mayor’s crazy,’” Fischer says, scary hospital kit in hand. “It is practical, but I want you to be outraged, to the point we demand outrage from these elected officials [in Kentucky and in Congress]. What’s radical is that nothing is being done when we lose 100 of our citizens [nationwide] every day.”

In Kentucky, a state with a Republican senate, house, and governor, there’s no chance for Fischer to pass the kind of legislation in Louisville that Liccardo is pursuing in San Jose. Fischer says state law preempts local government from passing most forms of gun regulations, and in that position, the best thing a mayor can do is fight for education and take a moral position.

De la Isla, who faces similar political currents in Kansas, registered a pessimistic note about how effective local governments can be on guns. “At the national level, we have a very powerful arm lobbying for nothing to happen,” she says. “Until we’re able to remove that barrier, I don’t think anything’s going to happen.”

California has a favorable political climate for passing aggressive legislation to control guns, and Liccardo is determined to press this advantage. In August, the mayor proposed an act to require every San Jose gun owner to carry liability insurance. Insurance would bring market pressure to bear on the crisis by adjusting premiums to account for risk. Instead of the public subsidizing the costs of gun carnage—costs that take the form of hospitals and police but also the psychic toll on schoolchildren and victims’ families—gun owners would be forced to pay out for these harms.

A California strategy isn’t feasible in many places beyond big California metros. Indeed, a proposal for firearm liability insurance recently failed in Maine, among other gun-control bills; and New Jersey’s governor banned insurance for gun owners with an executive order. Despite some setbacks in relatively liberal states, Liccardo sounded an optimistic note about the role that even local leaders in red states can play.

“As cities, we can be a force multiplier,” Liccardo said. “What we’re able to do individually, Congress can’t much do in cities across the country. If we’re collectively engaging them, they can’t fight us all.”

To that end, Everytown for Gun Safety, the national nonprofit organization, is rolling out a new tool this week to help cities figure out how they can deal with gun violence as it manifests where they are. The City Gun Violence Reduction Insight Portal, or CityGRIP, is a research clearinghouse that yields different options for a range of communities. Users can select characteristics from a series of dropdown menus such as population, demographics, and types of gun violence. Ticking off different boxes yields a custom set of best practices, case studies, and recommendations.

Michael-Sean Spence, director of policy and implementation for Everytown, says that the organization talked with mayors, police chiefs, sheriffs, and other leaders from more than 60 municipalities. CityGRIP comprises data-backed strategies from a range of urban, suburban, and rural jurisdictions. The tool is an effort to help communities grapple with a nationwide crisis that doesn’t look the same from one place to another.  

“You can define your community and the type of violence you’re concerned with, and generate a blueprint of solutions,” Spence explains.

“One thing we know about gun violence within cities is that it’s concentrated within pockets of those cities,” Spence adds. “Those cities have clustered violence. In suburbia, what we find is that the gun violence is more spread out. It isn’t as concentrated. The nature of the gun violence is different.

“In cities, we see it as primarily as community violence as well as police-involved shootings. In suburbia and rural areas, it’s more suicides and domestic violence.”

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