As chief executive of Ohio’s fourth-largest city, Toledo Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz has limited power to confront gun violence on a national scale. But in the face of an endless barrage of mass shootings and daily gun deaths, he says doing nothing is no longer an option.
Under a city policy announced last month, between massacres at a Pittsburgh synagogue and at a bar in California, gun and ammunition companies seeking to outfit Toledo’s law enforcement officers will first have to show that they follow what the city has deemed responsible business practices. It will use the following questions to judge potential partners:
- Do you manufacture assault weapons for civilian use?
- Do you sell assault weapons for civilian use?
- Which firearms does your company agree to not sell to civilians?
- Do you require your dealers to conduct background checks?
- Does your company have a plan in place to invest in gun- and ammunition-tracing technologies?
- Do you use, at a minimum, industry best practices for inventory control and transactions?
The policy ― the first of its kind in the U.S. ― will go into effect early next year, when the city begins soliciting bids for contracts for its gun and ammunition needs. The city’s police chief said he agrees with the mayor’s decision, telling Toledo’s The Blade that it is “not an indictment on the Second Amendment.”
Kapszukiewicz said he sees his plan as a way to use the free market to tackle gun violence by trying to impose change on the firearm industry, which has long resisted getting involved in divisive debates about how to best prevent shootings.
“What we are doing is quintessentially American and baked into the capitalist structure that has been a foundation of this country since its founding,” he told HuffPost.
Although there are federal regulations designed to control the flow of firearms from manufacturer to buyer, few gun companies go beyond those standards. And when safeguards inevitably falter and guns are diverted onto the black market or used in crimes, manufacturers and dealers are largely shielded from liability under a federal law passed in 2005.
By creating a financial incentive for responsible behavior, Kapszukiewicz hopes he can get manufacturers to take further steps to address the violence committed with their products.
“I’m not saying this is going to eradicate the problem in our nation or even avoid a tragedy in my own city, but just because we can’t do everything doesn’t mean we can do nothing,” he said.
In Kapszukiewicz’s ideal world, the U.S. would be taking a multifaceted approach to gun violence, touching on issues of access to firearms, mental health care and even school safety. But with congressional lawmakers showing that they “don’t care” about the bloodshed, firearm manufacturers must be part of the solution, Kapszukiewicz said. And if they won’t step up voluntarily, he’ll try to force their hand.
Toledo will likely need help creating the financial pressure necessary to do that. The city spends $150,000 to $175,000 every year on firearms, ammunition and replacement parts, he said — a tiny fraction of a large gun company’s annual revenue.
But if other cities follow Toledo’s lead, the movement could have more sway.
Add the other big cities of Ohio, and “the $150,000 of free-market pressure that the city of Toledo is going to bring to bear on this problem all of a sudden becomes almost $1 million,” said Kapszukiewicz.
And with buy-in from larger cities around the nation, that amount could swell far beyond that.
“While the gun companies could easily ignore Toledo and its $150,000 and never miss it, my sense is that they would miss the tens of millions of dollars of business that they would lose from the major cities of America,” he said.
Other mayors have already expressed an interest in joining Kapszukiewicz in his attempt to use cities’ consumer power to encourage better corporate behavior from gun companies, Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley told HuffPost.
Cranley chairs the Task Force of Mayors and Police Chiefs under the U.S. Conference of Mayors. He said he’ll be calling a meeting of the committee in the spring to discuss expanding Toledo’s policy nationwide.
“I suspect that we’ll have broad-based support from the mayors and from the chiefs to try to come up with a good behavior model that a majority of us would agree to,” he said. “The goal is for all the members of the conference to sign on.”
Cranley will be watching to see how gun companies respond to Toledo’s questionnaire, he said. He added that he intends to reach out to firearm manufacturers for feedback on criteria they could use to craft a national model for the conference to consider.
“You’ve got to believe that at least one of the companies, if not several, are going to want to be responsive,” he said.
But it’s not yet clear how manufacturers will respond to Kapszukiewicz’s survey.
The first questions about so-called assault weapons are fairly straightforward. Many of the leading suppliers of law enforcement sidearms also manufacture semiautomatic rifles, which are typically available to civilians, as well as police and military.
Sig Sauer, the company that currently makes Toledo’s duty pistols, also manufactures a variety of rifles, including the one used in the 2016 mass shooting at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Glock, a favorite of U.S. police departments, is one of the few large companies that offer only handguns.
Other questions on Toledo’s questionnaire are less clear cut. Federal law already stipulates that licensed gun dealers must conduct background checks at the point of sale. But there are loopholes.
The gunman in the 2015 Charleston, South Carolina, church shooting was able to purchase a handgun before his background check was completed, for example. Walmart is among the retailers that have sought to patch that gap by adopting a policy of denying any gun sale in which the buyer hasn’t been approved by federal authorities. Because manufacturers don’t typically sell their products directly to consumers, they may have limited control over this sort of retail practice.
Federal law has also established guidelines for inventory control and transactions, to be upheld by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said Mike Weisser, a Massachusetts-based gun dealer.
“If I’m a federal dealer with a federal license and I ship my gun to another place, I have to keep track of where that gun went,” he said. “The ATF inspects that.”
The bureau lays out additional best practices for federally licensed gun dealers to keep track of their wares, but the agency lacks the authority to fully enforce the standards. Most large firearm manufacturers are likely in adherence, said Weisser. But if a company is not, it would be hard to know unless ATF caught it in a specific violation.
Questions about manufacturer investments in tracing technologies could also pose issues, he said. Mainstream gun companies aren’t investing in those areas, he said, even though California law requires all new handguns sold in the state to be able to microscopically stamp the firearm’s make, model and serial number onto each fired shell casing, allowing police to trace spent ammunition back to individual guns. Weisser argued that mayors might be better off pressing manufacturers on other gun features related to child safety.
“Those companies that are doing it poorly will see their market share diminish, or they’ll change their behavior in an effort to win that business.”
Kapszukiewicz said he understands the initial set of questions may not be perfect. It’s possible the survey will reveal that no gun company fits Toledo’s definition of “responsible,” he said, or conversely, that all gun companies provide answers to make them look as though they’re already doing everything they can to keep their products out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill.
But in exploring the topic, he said, he was surprised to learn that nobody had done research identifying responsible and irresponsible firearm manufacturers. By establishing a procedure to figure out which companies have the strongest policies, cities ― and consumers more generally ― will be able to make more informed choices about which gunmakers to support.
“Those companies that are doing it poorly will see their market share diminish, or they’ll change their behavior in an effort to win that business,” said Kapszukiewicz. “And if no responsible gun companies exist, the market will create one out of whole cloth.”