Dolman: NYC puts guns in its crosshairs

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaks next

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaks next to other officials above a table of illegal firearms confiscated in a large weapons bust in East Harlem during a press conference on in New York City. (Oct. 12, 2012) (Credit: Getty Images)

Joseph Dolman

Portrait of Joseph Dolman, opinion writer at Newsday. Joseph Dolman

Dolman is a member of the editorial board who covers

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'The West Wasn't Won with a Registered Gun," declared a popular bumper sticker when I was a kid in Oklahoma.

The phrase suggested that hardworking people in our part of the world, the Great Plains, were doing what they had always done to get by. They were using their grit, their wiles -- and when necessary -- their guns, to make a living and keep themselves and their families safe.

And given the temper of the times, the phrase also hinted that their lives were constantly besieged by silly bureaucrats with fancy pay packages but no earthly idea what it was like to forage off the land or work a dangerous blue-collar city job just to survive year to year.

They regarded themselves as America's last cowboys, adrift in an unforgiving and changing world. For them, gun control was simply the last indignity.

They had it wrong. However sympathetic their plight, gun control was never the real enemy -- not now and not ever -- though the National Rifle Association has worked hard to conjure up an alternate reality.

Parts of the Old West in the late 1880s were, in fact, tamed with tightly regulated -- if not registered -- guns.

Law officer Wyatt Earp, for example, put tough restrictions into place in Dodge City, Kan., and Tombstone, Ariz. You could wear your pistol into Tombstone, but you had to check it at the sheriff's office or the Grand Hotel, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Now fast-forward.

In our current age of horrific public massacres, the gun issue until recently has focused on whether to allow firearms in churches, on trains, on college campuses or in national parks. Wayne LaPierre, who runs the NRA, suggests more armed personnel in public schools.

But this just increases the risk. Case in point: Outside the Empire State Building a few months ago, a gunman killed a former co-worker and then aimed his weapon at officers who had quickly moved in.

The police opened fire and killed him on the spot.

Unfortunately, in the hail of bullets, nine bystanders were wounded by police gunfire or flying debris generated by people specifically trained and drilled on the safe use of guns on the city's packed streets.

So return fire is how some people, like LaPierre, want to address our clear and present problems of public safety?

Uh . . . I don't think so.

Even Wyatt Earp knew on a gut level -- without reams of studies -- that guns do indeed kill people and need tight and effective controls.

Today New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and his boss, Mayor Michael Bloomberg seem to share that basic idea. Using New York gun laws, they have made vast progress against illegal gun possession and homicides.

Start with the big numbers first. By 1990, New York was reeling from the impact of more than 2,000 killings a year. The NYPD turned to a highly intensive model of patrolling and law enforcement. Result more than two decades later: The city's overall crime rate is down by more than 75 percent and homicides have dropped to the 500-a-year range, writes Thomas Reppetto, the former president of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City.

Crucial to the city's strategy has been a push to get guns off the streets using stop-and-frisk strategies. The stops have caused racial tensions, and the city must convincingly address them. Still, the Bloomberg team has shown that gun control can work, even within a nation that's drowning in weapons.

But in the end, Wyatt Earp's basic impulse was right.

This is not a battle among elites or among races. It's a fight for the safety of us all.

For cities, at least, New York has an answer.