Boston Anti-Gun Initiative is National Model
By Robert Preer
BOSTON -- In the early 1990s, youth gun violence in Boston seemed out of control. There was a shooting every day and a half, on average -- more than triple the rate of a decade earlier. A series of particularly shocking incidents rocked the city. A teen-ager walking to an anti-drug meeting was killed in gang crossfire, as was a 9-year-old stepping from a porch while trick-or-treating. A funeral service for a slain gang member was interrupted by shots outside the church.
David M. Kennedy, a researcher at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, reacted to the violence, but not in a style typical of academics. He wasn't stymied by the long-standing debates -- on the culture of poverty, drug decriminalization, absent fathers and so forth -- that preoccupy many intellectuals.
Instead he posed a simple question: Could gun violence in Boston be curtailed by getting the guns out of the hands of youths?
Thus began the Boston Gun Project, an unusual collaboration of Harvard researchers and nearly a dozen federal, state and local agencies. The experiment has proved so successful in reducing gang violence that the federal government is now replicating it nationwide. Even the National Rifle Association likes the approach.
Guided by Kennedy's research, officials in early 1996 developed a range of strategies that seem to have disrupted the illegal gun trade in Boston and also quelled fear in neighborhoods where youths acquire guns for protection.
By combing through piles of statistics and interviewing youths, Kennedy and his colleagues were able to identify the kinds of guns young people tend to use. The authorities, who were organized into a working group by Kennedy, developed strategies for tracking down and arresting gun suppliers.
The results so far have been striking: no juveniles ages 17 and under died from handguns in all of 1996 in Boston.
Even more remarkable -- and more relevant -- are the homicide numbers for young people 24 and under, the age category of most gang members. Since the program was fully implemented in June 1996, these killings dropped by two-thirds from the previous year. Compared with 1990, homicides for that age group are down three-quarters.
"What we are seeing is that the serious gang violence in Boston has almost stopped," Kennedy said. "As time goes by, it seems the streets are getting safer and safer."
The federal government is using the program as a model for a 17-city experiment, known as the Youth Crime Gun Interdiction Initiative, aimed at attacking the flow of guns to youths and disrupting the illicit trade in weapons.
Since the summer, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms of the U.S. Treasury Department has been tracing the history of every gun that has come into police hands in the participating cities -- Atlanta; Baltimore; Birmingham, Ala.; Boston; Bridgeport, Conn.; Cleveland; Inglewood, Calif.; Jersey City, N.J.; Memphis, Tenn.; Milwaukee; New York City; Richmond, Va.; St. Louis, San Antonio, Seattle and Washington, D.C.
Using this information, federal and local authorities hope to devise strategies later this year similar to the ones that are being used in Boston.
Before the Boston Gun Project, not many law enforcement officials or academic experts, for that matter, would have thought there was much hope in focusing on the gun supply as a solution to youth violence.
There are roughly 200 million privately owned guns in the United States -- a virtually limitless supply -- and conventional wisdom has been that people who want guns will either steal them or find ones that originated in states with lax gun laws.
In most police departments across the country, guns taken from criminals were simply locked up, used as evidence in trials and forgotten.
Kennedy and his Harvard colleagues, Anne M. Piehl and Anthony A. Braga, interviewed scores of probationers and studied data on more than 1,500 guns.
What the researchers found surprised them: Young people preferred newer guns, mainly semiautomatic pistols, many of them high-powered 9 mm and .380 caliber. Young people tended to shun weapons taken in house burglaries.
Also, more than a third of the guns had first been purchased in Massachusetts, which has stringent gun laws and extensive record keeping. This meant that tracking down dealers and purchasers would be easier than first thought.
"He pretty much identified the 'hot' guns," said Philip Tortorella, supervisory special agent for ATF and a member of the working group. "It provided us with some great insight, and we've been able to focus on certain kinds of guns." The other piece of the puzzle for Kennedy was the demand for guns. Why were youngsters arming themselves?
By interviewing officials and youths, Kennedy concluded that youth homicide was largely a gang problem, with at least 60 percent of killings between 1990 and 1994 gang-related. He also discovered that most young people got guns not because they were dealing drugs or planning other crimes but because they were afraid. Violence in some neighborhoods was so prevalent that many youths felt they needed guns for protection.
A demand-side strategy soon emerged: Reduce the climate of fear by targeting those responsible for it. Police usually knew which individuals and gangs were responsible for violence.
When problems flared, officials went to the gang members, promising a crackdown on any and all missteps, from unregistered cars to probation violations to jaywalking. At the same time, youngsters were offered a way out -- protection from enemies, schooling, a job.
Because it targets criminals and the illegal trade -- rather than trying to restrict the general supply of guns -- the Boston Gun Project has won the support of the National Rifle Association.
"It's been incredibly successful," said Elizabeth Swasey, director of the NRA's CrimeStrike Division. "The basic philosophy is transportable to any other city."
She added, however, that the NRA has not given its seal of approval to the federal version of the Boston plan, the details of which still need to be worked out.
Posted May 9, 1997
Copyright ©1997 American News Service
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