Jeremy C. Fox
Just weeks before a 14-year-old was killed and a 16-year-old was wounded in a daylight shooting in Jackson Square on May 8 [See related article.], local public safety advocates went directly to the most vulnerable population—young people—to spread their message against gun trafficking.
On April 20, the 11th anniversary of the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, Citizens for Safety led a workshop at English High School for teens to explore how guns get into the hands of criminals and what they can do to help make themselves and their communities safer.
The session came as Mayor Thomas Menino and the bipartisan Mayors Against Illegal Guns launched a new national campaign to close the so-called “gun show loophole,” allowing private individuals not engaged in the business of dealing firearms to sell guns at gun shows without conducting background checks on purchasers or maintaining records of sale.
Nancy Robinson, executive director of Citizens for Safety, told the Gazette the workshop was intended as a first step that would lead the youths to future action.
“This is really one of the rare times that young people can… have constructive conversations with police in the room about their feelings, their concerns and anxieties about gun violence,” Robinson said.
The workshop, cosponsored by the Boston Police Department (BPD), the Jamaica Plain Mental Health Trauma Team and the Community Benefits Trust Fund Inc., drew about 40 teens into the high school during April school vacation week. The young people were recruited by local groups, including the Bromley-Heath Tenant Management Corporation, Family Service of Greater Boston (FSGB), the Hyde Square Task Force and Urban Edge.
The youths heard presentations on gun trafficking and participated in exercises led by a fellow teen, Kendra Lara, a youth facilitator from FSGB, in which they acted out a scenario between a gun dealer and a straw buyer and brainstormed ideas for increasing public awareness.
At one point, Courtney Grey, director of trauma services at the Boston Public Health Commission’s Division of Violence Prevention, asked for a show of hands of those who had known someone killed by a gun. Almost every hand went up. He then asked the group to keep their hands up if they’d known two people killed, three people or four. At four, almost half the hands were still in the air. He counted to nine before all the hands went down.
Robinson told the teens that most street-level shootings are committed with guns obtained illegally. Guns are obtained either through unscrupulous dealers; straw purchasers, who buy guns on behalf of someone who legally cannot; or at gun shows, where buyers are not subjected to background checks.
Boston Police Superintendent Paul Joyce said the department takes in about 900 guns each year, 500 of which it considers “crime guns.” Of those, 80 percent are handguns. But only 30 to 40 percent originate in Massachusetts. Most come from other states, many of which, Robinson noted, have less restrictive gun laws.
Joyce said it is important to address changing the “thinking about how we use firearms to resolve conflict… and this is a great forum to start that discussion.”
In a question-and-answer session with the teens, Joyce emphasized the importance of witnesses coming forward to identify a shooter.
“A lot of times when there’s a shooting,” Joyce said, “we will have an idea of what goes on… If you’re an impact player and you’re involved in gang-related issues in the city, we know who you are, and we know a lot about you. … [But] ultimately to make an arrest, you’ll need evidence to do that… It can’t be based on my gut instinct.”
Youths in the breakout groups had lively debates around ways to slow gun trafficking. “Cigarette companies get held accountable for putting addictive things into cigarettes, right?” asked one young woman. “So it’s like your fault for smoking because you should know that it’s bad, but it’s also the cigarette companies’ fault for making a poisonous product.”
A young man named Louis suggested an educational t-shirt campaign using the Citizens for Safety slogan, “Where did the gun come from?” and having someone dressed in a gun costume “rapping about where the guns came from.”
One young woman suggested a law limiting the number of guns a person could buy at a single time. Robinson told her Gov. Deval Patrick has introduced a piece of legislation that would do just that.
Grey made a plea for someone to “stop the conveyor belt that keeps bringing the dying bodies to us.”
Grey said he believes it’s worth trying to stop the violence even though some people, including a young man who had just spoken, believe it’s impossible.
“And how many people thought there would never be a black president?” responded Jacque Furtado, program director for the Bromley-Heath Tenant Management Corporation.