St. Petersburg is a medium-sized city with a big-time gun problem. Three police officers have been shot and killed so far this year. Of the 11 murders within city limits, eight of the victims died from gunfire. These are the kinds of statistics that should rouse local officials into action. But St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster is disturbingly uninterested in one of his city's most pressing problems. His support for police officers and outrage over the loss of life is unquestioned, but he seems to care more about the politics of guns than doing something about getting them off the streets.
Everyone knows that the National Rifle Association exerts great political power, intimidating politicians to steer clear of gun issues. But local mayors and city councils are in a better position than most public officials to see the deadly consequences of doing nothing. City Council member Steve Kornell intends to bring up the gun problem plaguing St. Petersburg at the June 6 council meeting. At that time, the mayor and the City Council should be prepared to adopt symbolic and practical responses.
Foster is full of excuses as to why he wants to avoid the issue. He says he is powerless because the state Legislature has declared itself "the ultimate authority" on guns, permitting no local regulation of guns or ammunition. That's true. But it should be a starting point, not an end. The city can object to this pre-emption and lobby against it during the next legislative session.
Foster should also follow the lead of police Chief Chuck Harmon, who supports Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a bipartisan group of 500 mayors from big cities and small towns. The group was founded in 2006 by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to change the political conversation from overheated gun-rights rhetoric, to modest and effective ways to help law enforcement keep guns out of criminals' hands. The group's recommendations include tightening background checks for gun purchases and improving gun tracing to more easily track the owners of guns used in crime. Foster says he doesn't know enough about the group, though its representatives visited the city in April.
St. Petersburg officials also should express common cause with law enforcement by declaring their support for the renewal of the federal assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004, and the end of sales of high-capacity gun magazines like the kind used in the Tucson massacre, in which U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was wounded and six people were killed.
Foster and city police have identified illegal guns as a direct contributing factor in the city's gun violence. They say many guns involved in crimes are stolen during burglaries, and the owners never report the thefts. Well, how about an education campaign to encourage reporting of stolen guns, or providing owners with free gun locks to make them less useful to thieves?
What is not acceptable is for city officials in St. Petersburg, where residents are still mourning the loss of three police officers to fatal gun wounds, to act as though this hands-off approach to guns has no connection to the ease with which criminals obtain them.