Asking Paul Helmke: Can America find common ground on gun control?

It is a question worth asking, especially during times like these. Paul Helmke, former president of the Brady Campaign, explains about this and more. Photo: The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence

FLORIDA, January 12, 2013 — Before he became president of the Brady Campaign, Paul Helmke was the mayor of Fort Wayne, Indiana. As mayor, what did he find was the most effective method of curbing gun violence?

Speaking of guns, a great deal of people believe that if more of us were armed, there would be less crime. Does this idea have a factual basis? In the wake of Sandy Hook, such crime has been placed under a microscope. Might this substantially change our country’s dialogue over firearm control? 

Helmke shares his views about these pressing concerns in this second part of our discussion. He also shares his views regarding whether or not individuals from both sides of the gun ownership debate can find common ground during the years ahead, and explains what led him to play an active role in the gun control movement. 


Joseph F. Cotto: For over a decade, you were the mayor of Fort Wayne. During this time, what did you find was the most effective method of curbing gun violence?

Mayor Paul Helmke: As mayor, I learned that there is no easy, single way to curbing gun violence. As a result, we used a number of tactics in Fort Wayne, including: increasing the number of police officers and making them more visible overall and in targeted areas; applying “broken windows” approaches to “minor” crimes; using statistics and mapping to better spot crime trends and locations; using environmental and building designs to help prevent crime; working with neighborhood groups in our “Community Policing” and “Community Oriented Government” programs; working with the faith community; pushing for serious charges for violations of gun crimes; gang intervention programs; anti-drug initiatives; and others (including support for federal and state laws to make it harder for dangerous people to get dangerous weapons.)

Cotto: No small number believe that if more people were heavily armed, there would be less firearm-related crime. What is your opinion on this view?

Mayor Helmke: Studies generally establish that the more guns there are in a home, city, state, or country, the more gun violence there will be in that home, city, state or country. Guns too often get lost, stolen or misused. People with guns (like all of us) too often get angry, drunk, or make mistakes. Trained law enforcement professionals, who are tested regularly on “shoot/don’t shoot” scenarios, undergo psychological reviews, and target practice, still miss their target 80% of the time in active shooter situations, and make other human errors. I am not “anti-gun” but believe that along with “rights” there needs to be serious recognition of the risks and responsibilities that come with gun ownership.

Cotto: Do you believe that the Sandy Hook shooting will substantially change our country’s dialogue over gun control?

Mayor Helmke: This latest tragedy should spur the public to push their elected officials into a meaningful dialogue about what kinds of restrictions on guns might help reduce gun violence. It is significant that President Obama has now made this priority. For real change to occur, however, we need to hear from gun owners, Republicans, NRA-backed Democrats, business leaders, and other “new” voices willing to support, or at least discuss, things like a stronger and more effective background check system, restrictions on high capacity ammunition magazines and on weapons designed primarily for mass shootings, and tougher laws to hinder gun trafficking.

Cotto: During the years ahead, do you expect to see more people from both sides of the firearm ownership debate find common ground with one another?

Mayor Helmke: I am optimistic that common ground can be found. We’re no longer fighting over the meaning of the Second Amendment. No one is going to be trying to ban all guns. If both sides could focus on what could make us all safer within the list of “presumptively lawful” restrictions outlined by Justice Scalia in the Heller decision, then we should be able to reach on agreement on what we can do legislatively. Legislative changes, and the discussions that prompt them, might then help lead to a change in the way we treat guns in this country.

Cotto: What first inspired you to play an active role in the gun control movement?

Mayor Helmke: I received my NRA marksmanship badges while I was in grade school. I learned during the rifle classes the risks and responsibilities involved in handling guns. When I started high school, the local news led one evening with a story of one of my best friends being shot by a friend who “thought the gun was unloaded”. My friend survived, but still has a bullet next to his spine. I learned that many with access to guns did not appreciate the risks and responsibilities that should be a part of gun ownership.  

Years later, when I became mayor of Fort Wayne, I dealt with more and more families whose lives were torn apart by gun violence: the police recruit killed accidentally by the training officer who forgot the gun was loaded when they did a practice scenario; the local minister’s son who got a bullet in the back of the head from a drive-by shooting when waiting to be picked up from a YMCA branch; the wife of a police officer killed during a domestic argument when they struggled over the gun on the headboard of their bed kept there “to keep them safe”; and many others caught up, sometimes, accidentally and sometimes not, in disputes by gangs over drugs, or territory, or pride, or just nothing. 

As part of my “law and order” agenda in the city, I supported the Brady Bill and federal crime bill (which included the “assault weapons ban.”) I worked with other mayors from across the country and with the U.S.Conference of Mayors to pass federal legislation and got to know Jim and Sarah Brady. When I was contacted by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence some years later about heading up the organization that Jim and Sarah helped build, I said yes since I saw it as a chance to continue to work on an issue very important to me.

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Joseph Cotto

Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student of history by lifestyle choice. He hails from central Florida, writing about political, economic, and social issues of the day. In the past, he was a contributor to Blogcritics Magazine, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about American society.

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