Group revived to oppose illegal guns

August 14, 2008
By

DAVID TABER

JACKSON SQ.—Citizens For Safety, a recently reanimated nonprofit with roots in Jamaica Plain dating back to the 1990s, made a splash July 31, hosting a workshop at the Bromley-Heath housing development on illegal gun trafficking.

Featuring presentations by Mayor Thomas Menino and Police Commissioner Ed Davis, the “Traffick Jam” was the third in an ongoing series of teach-in events the group is holding across the city this summer.

“Most shootings on the streets in cities across the country are committed with illegal guns,” Nancy Robinson, executive director of Citizens For Safety told the Gazette. “By shifting our resources and focus there, we can prevent a lot of crime and prevent a lot of shootings. That is our whole M.O.”

Citizens For Safety this year merged with a group called Massachusetts Against Trafficking Handguns, which Robinson also headed, and moved its offices from the Metro West area to 31 Heath St. in JP.

Massachusetts already has some of the strictest arms sales regulations in the country, but Citizens For Safety is attempting to build a grassroots base to tighten federal regulations, Robinson told the Gazette.

“Really this has to be national,” she said. “Guns move in and out of states, across state lines, very easily.”

Since the spring, JP has seen at least 10 shootings, four of them in the Jackson Square area, where Bromley-Heath is located. Most recently, on July 27, a man was wounded at Bromley-Heath by an unidentified gunman. On Aug. 5, four teens were wounded by gunfire in nearby Egleston Square.

Menino has gained a national reputation for his passionate advocacy for increasing federal regulation of the gun trade. In 2006 he and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg convened the first meeting of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a coalition of over 300 mayors across the US that advocates for regulation of the firearms industry.

“The issue is, where do the guns come from? Too many of our young people have access to guns. Too many people are able to buy guns,” he told the group of about 50 community members, most of them Bromley-Heath residents, who attended the workshop.

In his comments, Davis applauded the mayor, noting that the mayors’ coalition boasts membership from “Texas and Florida, places where it may put [elected officials] in danger for saying what is right.”

That coalition owes its strength to Menino’s leadership, Davis said.

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence’s 2008 state-by-state gun laws scorecard places Massachusetts third in the country—in a tie with Connecticut—in the stringency of its gun laws. State laws here require firearms dealers and purchasers to obtain state licenses, and require dealers to provide the state with detailed accounts of their inventories and sales, among other things.

And, unlike in New Hampshire and Maine, dealers are not exempted from those rules at gun shows.

Still, between 30 and 40 percent of the firearms recovered by the Boston Police Department (BPD) originated in Massachusetts, Boston Police Superintendent Paul Joyce said in the workshop.

Discussing current trends in illegal gun ownership, Joyce said that while the average time between the purchase of an illegal gun and its use in a crime was 3-4 years in the 1990s, it is now 12-13 years, indicating that criminals are becoming more cavalier about hanging onto their weapons.

Joyce showed a map detailing the locations of city shootings in 2007. Eighty-eight percent were concentrated in Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan and border areas including Jackson and Egleston squares.

He also noted “we are no longer seeing large-scale purchases” of firearms from federally licensed gun dealers. In the last decade, so-called private sales by dealers who call themselves hobbyists, as well as illegal sales, may have become more popular, he said.

Robinson told the Gazette it is hard to track exactly where crime guns are coming from because the federal Bureau of Alcohal, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is currently barred—by the annually renewed Tiahrt Amendment—from sharing its tracking information with the public. That federal law, originally passed in 2003, has been a perennial target for Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

She also said that the ability of arms dealers to conduct private sales is a major loophole in federal law regulating gun sales.

In 1968, following on the heels of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, laws were passed to require federal registration for arms dealers. Federally registered arms dealers are required to conduct background checks on gun buyers.

Shortly after that law was passed, though, she said, largely due to lobbying from the National Rifle Association (NRA), the Firearms Owners Protection Act was passed.

That law “created a new class of firearms sellers known as hobbyists,” she said. Hobbyists are, by law, considered private gun owners selling off their personal collections. They are allowed to sell at gun shows and other venues without conducting background checks, she said.

Because of that rule, referred to by some as the “gun show loophole,” dealers are allowed to “table at gun shows, ostensibly selling off private collections,” she said. “It allows people in the business sell guns without requiring background checks.”

Citizens for Safety

The focus on the illegal gun trade represents new life for Citizens For Safety. Through the 1990s, under the leadership of onetime JP resident and current Bella Luna/Milky Way co-owner Kathie Mainzer, the organization focused on things like after-school and jobs programs for city teens as well as organizing the city’s first gun buy-back program.

The buy-back program was “an education vehicle for people to find out how dangerous it is to have guns in their homes,” Mainzer, who currently sits on the organizations board and attended the workshop, told the Gazette. “A lot of it was mothers, girlfriends, grandmothers, younger brothers who knew where guns were and wanted a safe, legal way to get rid of them.”

During Citizens for Safety’s peak years it worked with other community organizations and groups like the faith-based Boston Ten Point Coalition, as well as a BPD increasingly focused on community policing, to accomplish what is widely known as the Boston miracle. The 1990s saw a reduction in homicides in Boston from a record high 152 in 1990 to 31 in 1999.

By 2001, after years of federal funding for community policing and a marked increase in the level of youth programming and resources available throughout the city, Citizens For Safety, happily “became a victim of its own success,” Mainzer said.

The luster of the “miracle”—also likely the result of a booming economy in the late 1990s—has faded somewhat since then. In 2006 the city saw 75 homicides—a 10-year high—and 377 shootings, up from 133 in 1997. And, last year, Robinson got in touch with Mainzer and others from Citizens For Safety, Mainzer said. “She just felt likeminded. She connected with a bunch of us from the original Citizens For Safety and we all began working together,” Mainzer said.

She said the transition from broader community work community-based advocacy work is a “natural transition,” for the organization.

At the workshop, Davis took time to affirm that the BPD is still committed to community policing. “We are all about community policing,” he said, “educating the community, treating [you] as equals.”

For their part, the about 50 Bromley-Heath residents at the meeting seemed ready to be engaged.

When John Rosenthal of the Boston-based group Stop Handgun Violence told attendees that US Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat who is chair of the Judiciary Committee, “won’t even hold a hearing on gun shows…and he knows what guns are doing in Detroit,” most everyone whipped out pens or cell phones to take down the congressman’s number.

Later in the evening, the meeting split into two discussion groups to begin brainstorming for a possible firearms regulation campaign.

One group discussed media strategy, and, particularly, encouraging journalists to ask always ask where the guns came from when reporting on shootings.

The other discussed potential campaign strategy, including designing a pledge for gun dealers to sign. “We could build a campaign around them and squeeze other dealers,” one meeting attendee said.

Robinson told the Gazette that pledge could be based on an agreement recently reached between Wal-Mart and Mayors Against Illegal Guns. In that 10-point agreement, Wal-Mart pledges to videotape all firearms transactions and, once it is developed by the Mayors’ group, implement a computerized system to log when crime guns are traced back to their stores. That information is intended to help the store determine whether to proceed with the sale.

The agreement, known as the “Responsible Firearms Retailer Partnership,” also includes provisions for employee background checks and training.

Other workshop participants said they are eager to start picketing gun shows in northern New England.

Robinson told the Gazette Citizens For Safety plans to hold a meeting in the fall to begin discussing campaign strategy in earnest.

The event was the first sponsored by the newly formed Hyde, Egleston, Jackson Weed and Seed—a coalition of community-based and tenant organizations along with other community members and the Boston Police Department. The broad mandate of that group includes weeding out criminal elements and seeding potential positive community change in the area. Weed and Seed groups are eligible for federal grants, and the local group will apply for funding in the fall.

Bromley-Heath Tenant Management Corporation Director Mildred Hailey, who is also a key organizer of the Weed and Seed coalition, and who was recently named Crime Fighter of the Year by the BPD, introduced the workshop. She said the workshop would “help us in our community get together and organize so that we can make a difference…Someone is putting guns in the hands of our babies.”

Robinson told the Gazette that Citizens For Safety’s focus is exclusively on stemming the distribution of those guns. A recent US Supreme Court decision overturning a Washington, DC ordinance that essentially banned legal ownership of handguns and, for the first time, affirmed that the Constitution guarantees an individual’s right to bear arms, was not discussed at the workshop.

“We are focused on keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, not keeping guns out of the hands of law-abiding citizens,” she said. “I think the Supreme Court decision allows for common-sense policies to keep guns out of the hands of kids, criminals and the mentally ill.”

There was one incident of friction between workshop attendees and the professional advocates who presented at the workshop.

Responding to Rosenthal’s presentation and noting that some in the room had lost loved ones to gun violence, one meeting attendee asked him why he had mentioned twice that Massachusetts has the second-lowest rate of gun fatalities in the US.

“In the future you might want to put a little disclaimer on that,” the attendee said.

Rosenthal said he did not mean to minimize anyone’s grief, but that the state’s low rate of firearm deaths is evidence “we do things smarter in Massachusetts.”

Overall, Robinson said, the workshop was a great success and she has high hopes for the future of Citizens For Safety. “It was great to see everyone come together with the same focus and the same goals in mind,” she said.

Jermaine Headlam, a JP-based street worker with the Boston Centers For Youth and Families who attended the workshop, said he sees promise in Citizens For Change’s new direction.

“It’s going to be a race to see who really follows through—who floors it. I think it will work if everyone here comes through and does what they are clapping about,” he said.

Sidebar: The Mayors and the Mole