Remarks of the Honorable David J. Hickton
United States Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania
at the Forum on Gun Violence
Thank you, Rabbi Symons for that introduction. It is an honor to be here this evening for this forum on gun violence.
When I met with the organizers of this forum several months ago, we had a long and open discussion on reducing gun violence in Southwestern Pennsylvania. This meeting was held on the heels of the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. At the time, Sandy Hook was the most recent mass shooting which drew national attention to gun violence. We all were undoubtedly still reeling from the haunting visions of what happened on December 14 to those beautiful, innocent children and those who tried to protect them. While Sandy Hook and other tragic mass shootings preceding it have sparked an ongoing National dialogue on the issue of gun violence, the reality is that gun violence is and has been commonplace in far too many of our communities on a daily basis. Far too many lives have been lost through senseless mass shootings around the country AND senseless violence right here in our own District.
The Associated Press has described the chronic violence in some of Chicago’s neighborhoods as “a Sandy Hook Elementary School attack unfolding in slow motion.” Surely, the number of young lives lost right here this year alone due to gun violence should spark the same kind of outrage to that of Sandy Hook and Chicago. Of the 34 homicides in Allegheny County so far this year, 11 of those deaths--or one-third--were youth killed by guns, including a 19-month old toddler at a picnic. This is unacceptable, and it must stop.
I was asked to join you here to share with you the federal government’s response to the problem of gun violence in Pittsburgh. Protecting the American people from violent crime continues to be a top priority for our nation’s Department of Justice and the United States Attorney’s Offices. We have and will continue to vigorously prosecute those who attempt to terrorize our neighborhoods through violent crime.
Illegal gun use and shootings are a serious and dangerous problem in many of our communities, and federal firearms prosecutions are an essential aspect of law enforcement’s efforts to keep our communities safe.
The United States Attorney’s Office partners with its state and local counterparts to ensure that appropriate cases, including firearms cases, are prosecuted in Federal court. The advantages of federal firearms prosecutions are:
- Pretrial Detention. Many firearms offenders are presumed by law to be a danger and a risk of flight, and are held without bond pending trial;
- Through more severe penalties and generally longer prison terms, we are able to incapacitate these serious and dangerous criminals and protect the community from further crimes being committed by them;
- No parole or early release – violent crime offenders will serve the time. This also creates a strong incentive for individuals to plead guilty and cooperate.
Under 18 USC §922 (g), possession of a firearm or ammunition by a prohibited person is punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment.
Under 18 USC § 942(e), an offender with 3 or more prior convictions for a felony crime of violence and/or a drug trafficking felony is categorized as an “armed career criminal” and is subject to a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years without parole.
Prohibited persons are individuals who are:
- Drug users or addicts;
- Illegal or non-immigrant aliens;
- Adjudicated as mentally defective or committed to a mental institution;
- Subject to a domestic violence restraining order;
- Convicted of a prior misdemeanor for domestic violence;
- Fugitives from justice; or
- Dishonorably discharged from the military.
In addition, it is also illegal under Federal law to:
- Knowingly sell, give or otherwise dispose of any firearm or ammunition to any person who falls within one of the categories of prohibited persons;
- Use, carry or possess a firearm in relation to or in furtherance of a federal drug felony or a federal crime of violence;
- Transport or ship in interstate commerce or receive, possess, conceal or pledge to accept as security for a loan any stolen firearm, ammunition or explosive;
- Willfully steal or unlawfully take or carry away a firearm that has been shipped or transported in interstate commerce from a firearms licensee;
- Possess or discharge a firearm in a school zone;
- Knowingly possess or manufacture certain prohibited firearms; and
- Sell, deliver or transfer firearms or ammunition to a juvenile.
Because gun violence represents one of the greatest threats to the safety and quality of life in communities, the U.S. Attorney’s Office participates in the Department of Justice’s gun crime reduction initiative known as Project Safe Neighborhoods. PSN brings together federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, prosecutors and community members to develop a strategic plan that raises awareness of the problem and develops effective solutions for creating safer communities by reducing gun crime.
PSN adapts to the specific crime problems of each region. Our local strategy targets gangs and criminal organizations and involves vigorous enforcement of laws to charge criminals who facilitate the illegal use or possession of firearms. In addition, we are focused on those who lie to obtain firearms for criminals, and drug users who illegally possess guns, often to trade those guns for drugs.
Our work to investigate and prosecute felons who illegally possess firearms is well documented. Since Project Safe Neighborhoods was launched a decade ago, our office has brought hundreds of firearms cases against individuals who have been convicted or are under indictment for a felony. And for the past several years, we have been targeting other prohibited possessors - including fugitives from justice; unlawful drug users or addicts; and those who are subject to certain domestic-violence restraining orders.
A major part of our enforcement efforts targets "straw purchasers" that is, people who buy guns for other people, and illegal drug users who are prohibited from possessing guns. Unfortunately, in our region guns are often used as currency for drug trafficking. “Straw purchase" often involves lying on the ATF form about the identity of the actual buyer of the firearm. It is usually done because the actual purchaser is a felon or otherwise prohibited, or the person wants to shield his or her identity from law enforcement.
Every year through Project Safe Neighborhoods we host a Gang Awareness and Public Safety Conference in partnership with ATF, FBI, the Pennsylvania State Police, the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency and the Boys and Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania. This two-day conference brings together hundreds of law enforcement officers and community members to discuss violent crime reduction strategies and school safety. Through this conference we have focused upon Western Pennsylvania gang trends, hate groups and white supremacists, gangs in schools, outlaw motorcycle gangs, anti-government groups, sovereign citizens and prison gangs, active shooters and rebuilding the lost generation. Budget permitting, this year’s conference is being planned for late September in Moon Township and will feature sessions on the Sandy Hook shooting; officer safety; and domestic terrorism.
In the coming year, PSN funds will pay for a local Assistant District Attorney to serve as a Special Assistant U. S. Attorney to identify significant state gun cases that can be adopted for Federal prosecution. This Special Assistant United States Attorney will pay particular attention to chronic offenders and gang members, and prosecute the more serious and/or complex cases where there is a federal jurisdiction and the likelihood of greater federal sentence.
The Allegheny County Police Department in conjunction with our office has created a Violent Criminal Assessment and Strategic Targeting Initiative, also known as VICAST. In 2011, Lt. Andrew Sherman assembled this working group of law enforcement supervisors from local, state and federal agencies operating in Allegheny County and the Mon Valley to regularly meet face to face, combine resources and target repeat violent offenders, focusing on locations where violent gun crime was most likely to occur. These law enforcers apply proactive investigative methods to identify violent crime “hot spots” and develop smart and effective law enforcement strategies to address the crime. Local police departments identify particularly violent offenders and provide federal agencies with as much evidence and intelligence information as possible to facilitate federal prosecution. Recent successes of the VICAST initiative include the FBI Safe Streets Task Force’s takedown of dozens of violent offenders in Braddock, Duquesne and Homestead.
I have personally participated in working group meetings for VICAST—that is one measure of the emphasis we place upon this priority.
In recent decades, this work has led to an overall reduction in the rate of violent crimes; and we have made great strides in confronting the gun-fueled violence that has stolen too many innocent lives. But – as Attorney General Eric Holder has often said – we cannot yet be satisfied, and this is no time to become complacent.
It is time for a cultural change toward gun violence. Our Nation and our local communities have suffered far too much at the hands of dangerous individuals using guns to commit grievous acts of violence. We are aware that no law or set of laws will end gun violence; but, we still must act. If even one child’s life can be saved, then we need to act.
On January 16, 2013, President Barack Obama put in motion a plan to protect our children and communities by reducing gun violence. The plan, entitled “Now is the Time”, combines executive actions and calls for legislative action that would help keep guns out of the wrong hands, ban assault and high-capacity magazines, make our schools safer and increase access to mental health services.
Most gun owners buy their guns legally and use them safely, but far too often irresponsible and dangerous people have been able to obtain firearms and put us all at risk through careless storage and keeping. The President’s Plan seeks to strengthen our efforts to keep guns from falling into the wrong hands.
To date, federally licensed firearms dealers are required to run background checks on those buying guns, but studies estimate that nearly 40 percent of all gun sales are made by private sellers who are exempt from this requirement. A national survey of inmates found that only 12% of those who used a gun in a crime acquired it from a retail store or pawn shop, where a background check should have been run.
Private sellers have the option to sell their guns through licensed dealers so the dealer can run a background check on the buyer. This Administration is calling on these private sellers to do so and has directed the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to give licensed dealers guidance on how best to facilitate these background checks.
By strengthening the background check system, we seek to enhance the system’s ability to identify risky individuals and keep them from getting guns. This can be accomplished by:
- Addressing unnecessary legal barriers that prevent states from reporting information about those prohibited from having guns;
- Improving incentives for states to share information with the background check system; and
- Holding federal agencies accountable for sharing reliable information with the background check system.
The President’s Plan also calls for the prevention of easy access to instruments of mass violence and removing military assault weapons and high-capacity magazines from the streets. To accomplish this, the President’s plan seeks to:
- Reinstate and strengthen the ban on assault weapons;
- Limit ammunition magazines to 10 rounds; and
- Finish the job of getting armor-piercing bullets off the streets.
An important step we can take to reduce gun violence is to keep police officers on the street in our neighborhoods and communities. One of the most common responses our office received in response to its recent series of community surveys was for more police presence and beat cops. I am pleased to relay that through this Plan, President Barack Obama is calling on Congress to act on the Administration’s $4 billion proposal to help keep 15,000 cops on the streets in cities and towns across the country.
When law enforcement recovers a gun during a criminal investigation, they have the ability to trace a gun’s path from its manufacturer, to the dealer who sold it, to its first purchaser. This process helps law enforcement solve violent crimes by generating leads in specific cases and can reveal gun trafficking patterns when large amounts of tracing data are combined. The President’s Plan will bring uniformity to this process by requiring all federal law enforcement agencies to trace and retain custody of all recovered guns.
The Department of Justice will analyze information on lost and stolen guns and make it widely available to law enforcement. Data collected by ATF on lost and stolen guns will be published by the DOJ through an annual report. The report will include state-by-state statistics about guns reported as missing.
Many other areas are faced with illegal guns flowing into their communities through some form of an intrastate pipeline. However, the flow of guns in Western Pennsylvania is primarily from within the State.
Here locally, the Firearms Tracking Unit or FTU of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police has determined through traces that many guns make it into our streets through thefts and burglaries. Many of these thefts are preventable simply by gun owners taking a few simple steps to better secure their weapons.
The FTU has compiled an informative publication to help gun owners with this entitled “Don’t Let Your Gun Become a Crime Scene Exhibit”. Some of the tips included are:
- Do NOT store firearms in places burglars are likely to look, such as nightstands, dresser drawers or under your mattress;
- If you suspect that someone living in or visiting your home is addicted to drugs, be sure to secure your firearms—drug users frequently steal and trade guns as a way to support their habit;
- Storing a gun in your vehicle is NEVER advisable, particularly if the gun is being stored in the passenger compartment. Many guns are stolen from cars after being “hidden” under seats or inside seat pockets.
I would also urge anyone who is the victim of a burglary or theft which involves a firearm to immediately report it to law enforcement.
No one is seeking to blame gun owners or victims of firearms thefts for the violence occurring in our streets. However, in order for the cultural climate of violence to change in our communities, we must all be vigilant in changing our own individual mindsets and habits. The first step in that effort is a unified front that the current climate of gun violence is totally unacceptable. The second step is to make it extremely difficult for those seeking to continue this current climate to find the tools to do so. Everyone has a part to play in effecting that change.
Mental health services must be addressed and improved. Currently it is easier to gain access to a gun than it is to access mental health services. Less than half of children and adults with diagnosable mental health problems receive the treatment they need. The President’s Plan calls for training for teachers and other adults who regularly interact with students to recognize those who need help and ensure they are referred to mental health services.
The Plan also calls for support for individuals ages 16 to 25 who are at risk for mental illness. This demographic is at high risk for mental illness, substance abuse and suicide, yet they are the least likely to seek help. Many who received services as a child fall through the cracks once they turn 18.
Research shows that exposure to community violence can impact children’s mental health and development and can substantially increase the likelihood they will later commit violent acts themselves. Mental health services for trauma and anxiety, conflict resolution programs and other school-based violence prevention strategies should be provided for these children.
A national dialogue on understanding mental health has been launched by the President’s Plan. A grassroots effort by the faith community, foundations and school and business leaders is key in changing the current sense of shame and secrecy many associate with mental illness. This shame and secrecy prevents far too many people from seeking help.
Our schools must be made safer. In the wake of past school shootings, some schools have added trained and armed police officers. Other schools sought to increase counseling services. Each school has different needs, but increasing safety in our schools should enhance physical security AND create safer and more nurturing school climates which help prevent school violence. The recent school-based shootings clearly demonstrate that bullying can be a contributing factor to school violence.
School resource officers in schools can help prevent school crime, bullying and student-on-student violence. School resource officers are specially trained police officers that work in schools. Their roles as teachers and counselors enable them to develop trusting relationships with students which can result in threats being detected and crises averted before they occur.
The President’s Plan proposes a Comprehensive School Safety program which will help school districts hire staff and make other critical investments in school safety. Funding for this program will be available to school districts and law enforcement agencies to hire school resource officers, school psychologists, social workers and counselors. Under this program, DOJ will develop a model for using school resource officers, including best practices on age-appropriate methods for working with students.
Using the Comprehensive School Safety program, schools can also purchase school safety equipment; develop and update public safety plans; conduct threat assessments; and train “crisis intervention teams” of law enforcement officers to work with the mental health community to respond to and assist in student crisis.
Effective training for active shooter situations for law enforcement, first responders and school officials is one of the best ways to minimize loss of life in a mass shooting. This Administration, the Department of Justice and the U. S. Attorney’s Offices are expanding access to federal training. Federal agencies are ensuring that protocols for responding to active shooter situations are consistent. Efforts are being made to ensure that every school has a high-quality plan in place and that students and staff are prepared to follow it.
At the same time, we are doing everything in our power to protect the law enforcement officers who risk their lives to keep us safe – providing innovative training and investing in bulletproof vests and protective equipment. It bears noting that in addition to the casualties in communities during the past several years, law enforcement officers have been injured and killed at some of the highest rates on record.
As President Obama stated following the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy, “We know we will not be able to stop every violent act, but if there is even one thing that we can do to prevent any of these events, we have a deep obligation, all of us, to try”. We will and must try.