Area residents will surely welcome the skeletal anti-gang plan pronounced by officials of the various law enforcement and community groups that Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield assembled at city hall Monday. Though the agenda was hardly novel, it at least raised hope for broader coordination among law enforcement agencies, and more intense focus among schools and community-based groups toward keeping young people from joining gangs.
The mayor promises to push for changes to state laws to make it easier to convict and imprison gang members, especially for gun-related crimes with multiple defendants, and organized crime relating to drugs, group coercion and aggravated sexual exploitation. Law enforcement leaders from several agencies promise to be more helpful in planning and executing strategies to disarm and dismantle gangs. And civic leaders promise to do more to steer young people away from gang membership.
There's a good question, of course, as to why it has taken so long for the gang problem to rise to such priority status. Local officials have watched gang-related issues mount for at least 15 years. In 1997, police documented 10 gangs and about 150 members; now the estimate is 44 gangs and 1,100 members.
Civic leaders' attempts to resist the rise of gangs have been hobbled by complacency, or a lack of urgency, from school and government officials. Lawmakers haven't helped much, either. For years, district attorneys and chiefs of police from the state's largest cities have repeatedly sought stiffer state laws for gun-related crimes involving multiple defendants or gangs. The efforts have usually fallen before state legislators who are unwilling to raise the tax revenue needed to pay for longer prison terms and mandatory sentences for gang-and-gun-related crimes.
Local officials are equally to blame for denying funding for gang-fighting strategies, whether for expanded policing or after-school activities for the impoverished kids and neighborhoods most afflicted by the gang and shooting problems.
The biggest hole in the anti-gang umbrella approach was the unmentioned elephant in the room -- how to keep guns out of the hands of gang members. There were no specific proposals to seek state legislation or local authority to require private sellers of firearms -- either at our wide-open public gun shows or through personal ads -- to obtain a federal firearms background check before selling a gun to another individual.
The absence of any comprehensive proposal to starting stemming the unregulated local gun-sales sewer -- an initiative that leading cities and states have long embraced -- lent unremarked irony to Monday's kumbaya meeting. It was most glaring when an agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Darryl Hill, held up three types of bullets associated with gang members' firearms here. Two fit celebrated street versions of military assault rifles -- the legendary AK-47, and the AR-15; the third matched a round used in a World War II rifle.
"All three of these," said Darryl Hill, the ATF&E resident agent in charge, "are being carried by gang members and used by gang members in Chattanooga." The following silence about the most common-sense ways to restrict the purchase and illegal use of such weapons was thundering. Tennesseans, like Americans everywhere, can thank the NRA and its no-holds-barred advocates for this stunning absence of sane gun-control, and the most modest rules to thwart gun-related crime.