Project Safe Neighborhoods works to reduce gun violence locally

Project Safe Neighborhoods works to reduce gun violence locally

The pace of guns getting into the hands of violent criminals continues, even after mass shootings like those in Aurora, Tucson and Sandy Hook shook up the nation.

Allegheny County is not immune from this problem — nearly a dozen of the 34 homicides in the county so far this year have involved firearms.  

But now, the federal government is stepping in to make it more difficult for dangerous people to obtain guns.

David Hickton, the U.S. attorney of western Pennsylvania, spoke at the forum “Gun Violence in Pittsburgh: The Government’s Response,” held at Temple Sinai Wednesday, June 26, and discussed some of the measures that the federal government is taking.

“Many gun owners buy their guns legally, but there are far too many guns,” said Hickton.  “Many use them safely, but there are far too many who use them in an irresponsible or dangerous fashion.”

Possession of a firearm by a prohibited person is punishable by 10 years in prison.  Among those prohibited are prior felons, drug dealers or addicts, illegal aliens, subjects of domestic violence restraining orders, people convicted of a prior misdemeanor for domestic violence, people adjudicated with mental illness, fugitives and people who have been dishonorably discharged from the military, according to Hickton.

“All of these prohibited persons who are found to be in possession of a gun can be prosecuted,” Hickton said.  “And we do generally prosecute them under the federal law, and they receive a stiff sentence.”

Anyone with three or more convictions for a felony crime of violence or a drug trafficking felony is categorized as a career criminal and is subjected to a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years without parole,

Hickton added.

Gun stores and pawnshops are required to give background checks to anyone purchasing a gun, but purchasers can easily get around the checks: someone without a record can buy a gun for them, or they could buy a gun from a private person, which would not require a background check.  Arrangements such as these could fall within the jurisdiction of federal firearms laws.

Law enforcement officials often allow gun crime cases to go to the federal level because of certain advantages.  Under the federal system, a dangerous person or potential flight risk can be given pretrial detention, and it has substantial penalties for gun violence, including longer prison terms and no parole or early release.     

A partnership, Project Safe Neighborhood, is a federal program that brings together federal, state and local law enforcement to develop a strategic plan to raise awareness and create priorities to create safer communities. The program’s object is to find, capture and prosecute “the worst of the worst” gun, drug and gang groups, Hickton said.

“We will harvest illegal guns as part of that effort and hopefully identify and dismantle a criminal conspiracy which uses drugs as its currency and guns as its means of enforcement,” Hickton said.

A panel discussion with law enforcement and gun violence officials followed Hickton’s remarks.

The panel included Stephen Zappala, Allegheny County District Attorney; Shira Goodman, executive director of Ceasefire PA; Louis Gentile, security expert; Michael Huss, Pittsburgh public safety director; and Joseph Bielevicz, ATF task force officer.

Gentile, who spoke after Hickton, noted that at least three people were shot in the United States in the 30 minutes that Hickton addressed the crowd.

Gentile, who spent years as a law enforcement official putting violent criminals behind bars, spoke of the “tragedy” about most violent criminals that are incarcerated.     

“Everyone that goes into prison now, except those that are serving life sentences — and most are not serving life sentences — are coming out,” said Gentile.  “And when they come out they’re stronger, they’re tougher, they have a greater network and they are absolutely more violent.”

Zappala noted that the people who are shooting each other are 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds, and classified these actions as “senseless violence.”  But this violence is also reaching out into the community and affecting bystanders, such as the 15-month-old boy who was shot and killed in the East Hills in May.

“People are getting caught in the crossfire,” said Zappala.  “It’s creating a community of fear; people are living in a community of fear.”

The Pittsburgh Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, Temple Sinai, Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee and the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network sponsored the event.  Other community partners included Alleghenians Ltd. Inc., B-PEPCoalition Against Violence, Cavalry Episcopal Church, Ceasefire PA, Falk Foundation, First Unitarian Church-Shadyside, League of Women Voters, Mayors Against illegal Guns, NAACP, St. James A.M.E. Church, Sixth Presbyterian Church and Women for Action.    

(Andrew Goldstein can be reached at