Cities Under Siege On The Homefront

Americans are not strangers to gun violence. Many of us are confronted daily with television images depicting the harsh reality of gun violence on our local news programs. We are aware of the havoc wreaked by firearms upon individuals, families, and schools right here on American soil. And yet few of us stop to think about the many costs incurred by a community when handgun after handgun literally ends up in the wrong hands.

No community is immune from the perils posed by firearms. Gun violence stretches across all demographic groups in this country. However, urban communities are disproportionately affected by gun violence, and thus incur a sizable portion of the costs associated with this violence. These costs stretch across many parts of a community’s infrastructure, significantly burdening its health care, social service, and criminal justice systems, while greatly detracting from the economic productivity and overall quality of life of a community.

All residents in a community where gun violence is prevalent share its costs. For example, some urban hospitals in the United States have reported incurred expenses upwards of $300 million over the course of 15 years for treating the tens of thousands of gunshot victims who came through their doors. In some instances, more than 90 percent of these costs were paid with public funds. The financial strain of treating uninsured gun violence patients has closed dozens of trauma centers across the country, limiting health care access for area residents. In total, economists and public health statisticians estimate annual gun violence costs at more than $100 billion nationwide.

In the same way that New Jersey residents are not immune to gun violence, we are not immune to its costs. Residents of New Jersey’s largest city, the City of Newark (part of which is in my legislative district), and its surrounding communities (also many of which are part of my district) know the high costs of firearm violence all too well. In the year 1999, nearly one-quarter of the 366 firearm-related deaths in New Jersey occurred in Essex County. This number of fatalities does not include the likely thousands of serious injuries caused by firearms in the same year.

Taking the vast costs associated with gun violence into account, it is clear that firearms should be strictly regulated in New Jersey and other states so as to promote their safest and most responsible use. As Democratic Senate President, I have consistently supported legislation to strengthen gun laws in our state, and most recently sponsored legislation that has become the first state law in the nation to authorize the development and use of personalized “smart-gun” technology. New Jersey’s new “smart-gun” law accompanies strict existing state regulations of firearms, making New Jersey a national leader in firearm safety.

Unfortunately, laws alone are not enough to prevent the illegal gun markets that have developed in Newark and other cities in New Jersey and across the country. These markets have resulted in widespread trafficking of illegal guns, the criminal use of which often leads to serious injury and death. The secondary gun market in Newark has thus contributed to many of the costs the city has incurred as a result of gun violence, as explained above.

Illegal firearm markets have cropped up in large part through the failure of gun manufacturers to maintain control over the distribution of the deadly weapons they create. Gun makers have consistently oversupplied some areas with firearms–knowing they will be illegally used in other areas, like Newark. The gun manufacturing industry has also misled consumers with false advertising claims about the “security” of owning of gun, and has failed to implement safety devices to control the use of their dangerous products.

The shocking negligence of the gun manufacturing industry has contributed significantly to the harms associated with gun violence experienced by residents of Newark, Camden, Jersey City, Paterson, and Trenton. It has also contributed to the high economic and social costs incurred by these cities as a direct result of the gun violence in our urban streets.

The overwhelming damage suffered by Newark and other cities in New Jersey for the economic gain of gun makers led the City of Newark to file suit in 1999 against 28 gun manufacturers. Last month, a state appeals court affirmed that Newark and other cities in New Jersey have a legitimate concern to question gun manufacturers on their marketing strategies and a right to pursue damages for the municipal costs of gun violence. The ruling has reinvigorated public officials like myself who seek to combat gun violence in New Jersey and believe that gun manufacturers should be, and will be, held accountable for their negligence.

Along with suits brought by other cities and municipalities across the nation, I hope that Newark’s suit will ultimately set the stage for reform of the way in which guns are manufactured and distributed in this country. Unfortunately, certain Republican members of Congress are currently engaged in legislative maneuvering that would grant gun manufacturers immunity from suits by injured citizens and cities infested with illegal firearms. I urge New Jersey’s congressional delegation to block this special interest legislation that would deny citizens and municipalities a fundamental right under our judicial system.

New Jersey’s cities have been ravaged by the gun industry’s negligent and deceptive practices for decades. It’s true that the wealthy and powerful heads of firearm companies like Smith & Wesson, Colt, and Beretta aren’t actually in the streets of Newark behind the triggers of the illegal guns that spawn our costly urban warfare. But then again, there would be no streetwars without weapons. Alternatively, gun manufacturers are certainly not protecting our streets from harm–clearly that would lower their bottom line. In a phrase the gun manufacturing industry will understand, those of us who are fighting to make our families and our streets safe have the gun makers in our sights.

Democratic Senate President Richard J. Codey represents the 27th Legislative District, which includes parts of Essex County.