Q&A: What Cities Can Do About the Gun Epidemic


AP Photo/Cliff Owen

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter speaks in Washington

In 2008, National Rifle Association sued Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, a Democrat, after he signed five new gun measures into law. A state court later upheld three provisions, but struck down the two strongest ones that limited gun purchases and banned the purchase and ownership of certain assault weapons. Although Nutter continued to take on state lawmakers over gun issues throughout his two terms, heavily Democratic Philadelphia must contend with Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled General Assembly on a hot-button issue like gun safety. Pre-emption was one of the thorny issues that Nutter tackled during his two terms in office. 

Nutter now teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia. He stopped by The American Prospect’s offices in downtown Washington to discuss his new book Mayor: The Best Job in Politics with Prospect Deputy Editor Gabrielle Gurley. 

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

The American Prospect: You write that, “There is no reason for a civilian to have an automatic weapon. … I’m a big supporter of the Second Amendment, but I think I have a First Amendment right not to be shot.” How will the recent Florida school shootings affect the gun debate?

Michael Nutter: First, elected officials express deep sorrow, horror, tons of prayers, condemnation of the person, we really need to be doing something about this. And then nothing.  

I don’t understand how a 19 year old is able to purchase an AR-15. He said he bought it legally, there’s no issue there. I do not understand why any civilian would have a need for a weapon that is that very much similar to a weapon of war. In the aftermath of Florida, the autopsy documents from Las Vegas have been released. I truly believe that most Americans, starting with myself, do not fully understand the power of these weapons and what they actually do.

I want someone to tell me why that young man at Sandy Hook should have been able to use that kind of firepower with five- and six-year-olds. Have people lost their ability to imagine what a weapon like that would do to such a small child? It would tear their bodies apart.

The two events stand out to me where the media, and specifically, television, changed the course of events in American society: the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. People heard that things were bad down South. People were reading that there were really bad things; people were hearing things and all of that. When they saw the hoses, the beatings, the Pettus Bridge on what would have been for many people, starting with my own family, a relatively brand new device called a television in the home. And when people got a full grasp of what was going on down there, people said that’s not who we are; we need to change some things. And we did.

Do people need to see what these weapons do to the human body?

I don’t know that people understand what happens when one of these high velocity bullets hits a person’s body.

So they should read the autopsy reports from Las Vegas.

We see it with our soldiers: Why are many of them in the mental condition that they are in? It’s because of the things that they’ve seen in war. We’re confined to hear the news report from the very nice people on television; you read your paper; or listen to radio; go online. But you’re never going to really see what that kind of death and carnage looks like.

Seeing that the carnage would make a difference in the debate over access to guns?

I think it would as troubling as it is.

How do mayors deal with these kinds events going forward?

The first job of the mayor in that situation is try to convey a sense of not only sympathy and sorrow but also calm and stability. Somewhere between “things are OK,” and, “I am not trying to scare the hell out of you,” there is a space where you have to communicate with folks that yes, you know that this can possibly happen. In many instances, cities actually can’t really do anything about weapons. They’re often pre-empted by their states, Philadelphia being one. New York is not.

You’ve been sued by the NRA.

One of the proudest moments my entire political career.


I have been focused crime and safety and death and violence my entire life. My administration and working with the Philadelphia City Council we tried to do what we could do. One of the issues was a piece of legislation that said that if you are a responsible gun owner and if your weapon is lost or stolen, you should be required report it.

Of course, for the NRA and its supporters, any piece of legislation related to guns is all about the slippery slope. They argue that then you are going to take all of our guns away, which is one of the biggest lies ever that no one is actually talking about. But that is what they rally around.

That piece of legislation was introduced and a few other bills, a total package of five. I ran on a public safety platform and on my 100th day in office, I was sued by the NRA. The NRA is one of the most disingenuous and dangerous organizations in the United States of America. I do believe in the Second Amendment. I do believe in the individual right to enjoy the sport of hunting or target shooting or collecting.

I come from a state that has a huge NRA membership. In the western part of the state on the first day of hunting season, schools are closed. There is a huge tradition, which I deeply respect of parents and children. [When] they reach a certain age, where we might get a bicycle or something in the East as a teenager, that teenager in the West may get their first rifle. I’m OK with that—with training, programs, and understanding of what this weapon is and what it can do. But that’s not our issue in Philadelphia and most other small, medium, and large cities.

Nobody is hunting in Philadelphia. They are shooting people. They’re not target shooting. They’re after someone. They may not be friends but they’re known to each other. And they run all day shooting each other—with guns that they did not purchase in a store. So of all of those guns, almost every weapon we pick up is an illegal gun.

Why is there is this deep disconnect of how to handle illegal firearms that are used to kill people and hunting? There have been many attempts to ban guns and take them off the streets in Philadelphia and Harrisburg says not so fast. 

It’s a close-minded viewpoint. We have 67 counties in Pennsylvania, so I understand that you don’t want to have 67 different schemes for how you are going to deal with weapons. When you look at the enormity of the problem—half of the homicides in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania are in Philadelphia.

Much like New York state has for New York City, if you care about people and you realize what’s going on here, you would in fact give the largest city in the state a little bit of leeway in terms of those issues. The city lost eight police officers killed in the line of duty, five by gunfire, the first by an AK-47. Why should that person have had an AK-47?

So the disconnect is, unfortunately, the NRA has been able—through contributions, political muscle, and public opinion—to shift the discussion from it’s not about gun safety; it’s all about taking guns away. They want to ignore the First Amendment, which is not just about free speech; it’s about freedom to assemble. Well, in many instances people have lost their freedom to assemble in many parts of the country because it’s so damn dangerous from people running around with illegal guns.

What do blue cities in red states do about pre-emption?

That tension is going to grow. The current issue is sanctuary cities and the immigration debate. You’ve got the federal government saying we’re not going to give you grants if you don’t basically abide by our rules and you have some states saying the same thing. Increasingly, cities may be in the position where they are going to have to sue their states or even the federal government for overreach, an exaggerated level of federalism that encroaches on the ability of mayors as executives to do what is in the best interest of their own citizens. You end up in the highest court in your state or it becomes a federal issue. 

When you were growing up in Philadelphia, it was essentially a Rust Belt city that had seen better days. Now Philadelphia is so cool, it’s made the shortlist for Amazon’s HQ2: What do you make of the kind of economic development competition that pits two of Pennsylvania’s two largest cities, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, against each other?

It’s great to be on that list. It’s been great to raise the profile of cities like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Erie, and a number of others. At some point, someone will win and 19 others won’t. Many of the things that they had to do to enter that competition let alone get on the shortlist of 20, many of those lessons and things that they did will help them going forward with other deals and other opportunities. Because when you have to do that kind of self-examination, asset scan, and relationship building, that’s going to help you in the future, regardless of what happens in this particular transaction. There will be other companies that might want to follow the same kind of process that Amazon has.

But some cities view the competition a shakedown and say that Amazon really already knows the city they want. San Antonio did not enter a bid for Amazon’s HQ2: City leaders criticized the bidding war the company set up between cities.

Folks have to live within their means, with all due respect to Amazon. The city still has to be able to function and operate—unless Amazon is going to help with day-to-day services and the like. You want to make sure that you are not in a situation where you are a one-and-done, that you’ve given every possible thing to one company, leaving your coffers totally depleted and unable to ever attract anyone else. That seems to me to make no sense whatsoever and hopefully no one will do that. Amazon is in a position where they can ask for certain things. But the prospect of putting down a campus with 50,000 jobs—that’s a pretty serious proposition.  

The issue though, is who will fill those jobs? Are they looking in places where the opportunity to significantly bring along residents and nearby residents who really need a job, really want a job, and also may not necessarily have all the skill sets required for those 50,000 jobs. That conversation has to be a part of the equation.

In a city like Philadelphia, given the high poverty rate and the high level of unemployment, especially for African American and Latino men, we would have to be in a very serious conversation—if I were involved, which I am not. But if I were still in office, we would have to have a very serious conversation about the “who” of those 50,000 jobs.

Amazon could also accelerate gentrification, too. How do you keep the neighborhoods intact for the people who live there, so that they aren’t pushed out by wealthier newcomers?

You want to be open and welcoming and have a mix of incomes, races, genders, and preferences—that does make for a very healthy neighborhood. On the other hand, the folks who have been holding down the fort waiting for the cavalry to come, if you will, should not be forced out of their own community where they’ve lived for 20, 30, 40, 50 years. Rising property values overall are always a good thing, and a sign of a healthy market. But as my grandmother used to say, you can be house rich and cash poor. The value of your house has nothing to do with your ability to actually pay your taxes.

People will say they bought this house in 1958 for the then-exorbitant price of $40,000—now it is worth whatever it’s worth and now I can’t afford to live here. When we fixed our property assessment system, which was not capturing anywhere near the value that it should have been from certain neighborhoods and certain types of households, we realized that in many instances, lower-income people were actually paying more than they should have been and upper-income people were paying much less. We balanced that out. But we also realized that long-term owner occupied properties really needed some extra protection, so we created a program to deal with that.

As a leader, you have to pay attention to these issues and be mindful that every deal is not a great deal; every piece of land doesn’t have to have a building on it. How you manage growth is critically important.

The GOP’s new tax laws and President Trump’s latest budget proposal are hard on cities. Can they adapt to a leaner fiscal environment?

Cities are going to be heavily dependent on saner voices in Congress—both Democrats and Republican—to protect us, if you will. It seems almost like disdain that the White House has for cities. I don’t recall any positive comments that Trump has ever made about a city.

Cities are economic engines in states and for the country overall, but you have a New Yorker who disdains them.

He doesn’t understand how cities work; he doesn’t understand their value or what they do. He’s a real estate guy. My best sense is what he understood how to do his deals for his private company. It was basically all about what he could get.

Donald Trump doesn’t understand that in the president’s role, often the greatest successes are from what you can give and how you can support these small, medium, and large cities, rural communities, and suburbs all across the U.S. He is not a student of government; he seems to have no appreciation for government. The most dangerous person is the person that thinks he knows everything and actually knows very little and surrounds himself with people who don’t know or understand either.

That’s where you get wacky ideas like: We did this big tax cut and now we need to save money so now we are going to go after the SNAP program. Or everybody is going to get a daily box of food with stuff that he would never eat himself.

They are trying a bait-and-switch approach on the transportation and infrastructure proposal, where the formula currently is 80 percent by the feds and 20 percent state and local. They literally want to turn that on its head and go 20 percent feds and 80 percent state and local. That’s a disaster for cities.

There is going to be a level of antagonism and conflict growing between cities and the federal government. You are going to see more strong, strident, aggressive leadership by mayors—Democrats and Republicans—pushing back on the ideas that would be devastating.

What the president doesn’t understand is that it’s fine you are the president of the United States of America, but in their own local media markets, the mayors are the dominant force. They have the closest relationship with people: It’s not philosophical or party platform, it’s practical.

The job is so personal with the public. If I’ve got 15 inches of snow on the ground, I can’t go make a speech about it. People want to know when are you going to send a plow down my street. If you are not having that conversation you’re not talking about anything, right? It’s a very different job. You will find a whole bunch of Republican mayors who are strong supporters of HUD and think that the community block grant program is the best money that cities ever got. They understand that.

You write that people aren’t paying attention to politics because they have real lives. Given what has happened in the country over the past year, will people pay closer attention?

We have been watching this train wreck for some time. There’s a phrase now, “stay woke.” A lot more folks are seeing and understanding the consequences of elections, not voting, and not being engaged. It would have made that much more difference in Virginia [in 2017]. Democrats go from one vote up [in the legislature] then to one vote down, then to a tie. Then, we are flipping coins. We flip coins at football games, not to decide elections.  

People are really waking up to what’s going on that this is what happens when you’re not engaged. A showman, a carnival barker, a TV character could vanquish 16 serious people on the Republican side. A good portion of the American public is so angry and so upset about so many different things. But there is a lack of honesty about what’s really going on.

Coal is not coming back. All the jobs did not go to China and Mexico: some of you lost your jobs to a robot, a mechanical arm that does not go on vacation; need a break; is not subject to various rules and regulations; and works weekends for free. Members of Congress are raising money all the time and rarely talking to each other in D.C. They are desperately clinging to and holding on to power. The Republican Senate will do anything to maintain that majority. Having new people running for office is critical; winning is even more critical. We at least have to be able to slow this train down. 

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