In 2020 and 2021, homicides broke all-time records in several cities, from Indianapolis to Philadelphia to Portland. Handguns, in particular, are a common denominator of the violence. FBI statistics show that only 4 percent of gun deaths in 2020 came from rifles and shotguns, the category that includes so-called assault weapons. This year, robberies, for which handguns are the leading weapon, are up 19 percent. As with nationwide crime crises in the past, a federal solution can help. Creating a Joint Firearms Task Force program in our nation’s major cities could make a dent in the problem.
Joint task forces combine federal, state, and local investigators into single law enforcement units. Such teams combine the reach and power of federal agencies with the street-level knowledge of local cops. They can operate at all levels of criminal activity, and they excel at making cases that matter—and stick.
By going federal, investigators avoid interference from progressive city prosecutors who seek to undermine law enforcement. With a mandate issued from the attorney general’s office—or even the White House—federal prosecutors would understand that they have the backing needed to pursue cases vigorously. Further, federal prosecutors have powerful tools at their disposal, like the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization law (RICO) that was essential in hobbling the mob. Federal conspiracy and RICO cases can result in substantial jail time, encouraging informants to cooperate while discouraging criminality. It was primarily the joint task force approach that tackled the mafia in New York, Chicago, and elsewhere.
After 9/11, the federal government formed Joint Terrorist Task Forces across the nation—expanding New York’s unit to more than 200 people and setting up analogs in over 100 cities. Since 9/11, approximately 482 terrorism cases have been brought in the federal system, nearly all by the terrorist task forces. These units remain the tip of the spear in the nation’s counterterrorism posture, ensuring that the new reality of rampant terrorism predicted after 9/11 did not arrive.
A task force approach to gun crime could achieve similar results. Easy to conceal and highly mobile, handguns represent a profound challenge to street cops. The past tactic of “stop, question, and frisk”—still legal under federal law when conducted properly—was highly effective, but it fell into disfavor with city leaders. The result: guns are simply not being interdicted on the street. Most illegal handguns get trafficked into cities through the “iron pipeline.” Criminal groups buy guns in areas where it’s easy, then transport them to cities, where they fetch high prices. Federal firearms task forces could exploit this feature of gun trafficking, forcing investigators in different parts of the country to communicate—a rarity in local police work. And because the targets are criminal confederations, federal conspiracy or RICO charges would be appropriate.
Federal task forces also include valuable civilian analysts: the vastly underappreciated (and often under-utilized) subject matter experts who help field investigators. As cops and agents conduct surveillance, run informants and undercovers, and develop witnesses, analysts synchronize all this activity into a comprehensible whole. They search databases on suspects, pore over phone and financial records, and identify patterns. Experienced analysts are also adept at marshalling evidence for presentation to a grand jury or for trial, easing the job of busy prosecutors. The organization and insight that analysts can bring to the building of complex, multi-person cases cannot be overstated.
Small, makeshift versions of joint firearms task forces currently operate in a few places. Needed today is a standardized program that facilitates communication among everyone. While standing up such a program may sound daunting, a framework already exists. The federal government currently operates 33 High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) task forces, with a presence in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. Constituted under the Drug Enforcement Agency, the HIDTA units are currently confronting not just traditional narco-trafficking but also the new nightmare of Chinese-made synthetics such as fentanyl. The HIDTA teams should be supplemented. Pairing cops and agents from participating agencies and adding them to the HIDTA units could put administrative channels, funding mechanisms, and evaluative metrics to use. Owing to the overlap between drug crime and gun crime, critical intelligence will reside in one place.
When the nation confronts serious, home-front threats, level heads adopt this model. Violence in cities is such a threat. National joint task force programs have a proven track record. It’s time to set one up for gun trafficking in our cities.