Gun Buyback Seen As One Tool in Ongoing Construction of Safer City
BOSTON – One hundred and thirty six. That, according to Boston Police, was the number of guns turned in by the end of the first week of the city’s gun buyback program christened “Your Piece for Peace.” Sergeant Mike McCarthy of the Media Relations Department said in an email, “the BPD is very pleased with the program’s success so far.”
The last time a gun buyback was tried, in 2006, then Mayor Tom Menino declared the so-called “Aim for Peace” effort “a major success,” saying 1,000 firearms had been taken off the streets of Boston.
Boston's current Mayor, Martin Walsh, and city officials have not set an end date for the 2014 buyback program, which began on Monday, March 24th. Residents are encouraged to find illegal guns and turn them into police in exchange for a $200 Visa gift card. There are twenty three drop-off sites around the city. The police, who say they have a “no questions asked” policy, also are using a telephone help line at 1-800-GUNTIPS for those who wish to arrange a private exchange.
Sergeant McCarthy couldn’t say how many guns were turned in to the drop-off sites as opposed to private exchanges. But he added that the majority of firearms turned in so far are handguns; which are the weapons of choice in most crimes involving guns.
In the Jamaica Plain neighborhood, one gun had been brought to the office of the Hyde Square Task Force, according to an officer stationed at the Task Force’s Centre Street office last week.
The prevailing consensus - based on interviews with participants in the “Piece for Peace” program and various media reports – is that little evidence exists to prove buyback efforts have a significant impact on gun violence numbers. But those involved say an incremental approach – getting one illegal gun off the streets being better than getting none off the streets – is a worthwhile endeavor.
Ken Tangvik, Director of Organizing and Engagement for the non-profit Hyde Square Task Force said his organization believes participating in the program is “a good, concrete move that we can make.
“No one’s under the illusion that this is going to stop violence in the city and it’s the only thing that can be done, but I think we all agree that it’s one small part of a much larger puzzle that we’re all trying to figure out…we’re all very much aware that every gun we can get off the streets is going to be a plus for the youth and the parents and the siblings and actually the whole city.”
Mayor Walsh initiated discussions about a gun buyback process in February, following the accidental shooting death of a nine year old Mattapan youth by his fourteen year old brother. The Suffolk County District Attorney charged the fourteen year old with involuntary manslaughter and unlawful possession of a firearm.
The police and the Mayor’s office have called on community organizations to cooperate with the gun buyback as part of “a broad anti-violence strategy,” according to a program brochure handed out at the gun drop-off sites. The brochure lists nearly sixty community partners, including youth-focused agencies, neighborhood community centers, and faith-based organizations.
“I don’t want to overstate anything,” said Reverend David Wright, Executive Director of the Roxbury-based Black Ministerial Alliance of Greater Boston “but I know there is a lot of enthusiasm from community organizations and some of the faith community in supporting this initiative.”
Wright agrees with those who say there isn’t a lot of data to show the efficacy of gun buyback programs but thinks the strategy is valuable as a means for community mobilization.
“It’s really about having a way to keep the conversation going. It’s really about a way to keep community, faith-based organizations, even government agencies talking about ways of working together to address youth violence. Maybe trying things we haven’t tried before. But at least having that discussion.”
Historically, police, elected officials, and community groups in Boston have found ways to work together effectively. In the early 1990’s, following a wave of youth and gang violence that seemed overwhelming, local clergy along with city youth workers and police dedicated themselves to finding neighborhood-based, collaborative solutions.
Over the years, programs sponsored by organizations such as the Ten Point Coalition, Us Making Moves Together (UMMF), the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, Peace Boston and the Peace Collaborative, have included late night basketball tournaments, hip hop music shows, and the more mundane but equally important work, say activists, of developing economic alternatives to the drug economy and building bridges between neighborhood schools, health centers, and police precincts.
Maintaining trust between communities and law enforcement is critical to the success of any anti-crime program, including gun buybacks. But it has not always been easy.
The Hyde Square Task Force - which began in the late 1980’s primarily focusing attention on street safety issues, according to Ken Tangvik – has a long history of working with the police, including co-sponsoring community meetings and crime watch initiatives and coordinating safety during annual public events. However, trust can erode quickly as happened in recent years when tensions between local youth and MBTA officers escalated over racial profiling.
“A few years back,” remembered Tangvik, “our youth that we work with complained bitterly about the way they were being treated by the MBTA police and they felt they were being harassed at train stations such as at Jackson Square. For example, teens who were told by their parents to wait for their younger brother and sister who was coming home from school…were being pushed out by the police.”
The Task Force surveyed seven hundred teens and found a pattern of “some institutional racism,” said Tangvik. “And police not treating youth with respect in respect for ways that would have caused much more positive relationships.”
Activists confronted police over their behavior towards teens, said Tangvik, and the MBTA eventually changed the way they train their cadets. “And now all of their police cadets are trained in how to deal with urban youth in a positive way.”
For the Black Ministerial Alliance’s Reverend Wright, it’s important to have conversations about past confrontations, reducing tensions along the way, and developing constructive solutions.
“Throughout history, there have always been in just about any community, tensions between citizens, especially the youth, and the police from time to time. Within the urban core you see that a lot more because as violence escalates the police get more aggressive, kids who are really not doing anything more but hanging out get tagged and searched and sure you’re going to have a lot of tension.
“Nobody wants gun violence in the community,” adds Reverend Wright. “To have a constructive conversation about partnering together to reduce that, it means building trust. Which means starting to address some of the things that have happened in the past both on the side of the police and on the side of some of the youth in the community that have built up these walls.”
The Alliance sponsors a high risk youth network, which the police have committed to helping, he said.
The “Piece for Peace” buyback program, said Sergeant McCarthy, will last as long as guns are turned in and private funding continues – the Boston Police Athletic League, the City of Boston Credit Union, the Celtics, and Clear Channel Outdoor Advertising are among the organizations that have donated towards the program's $125,000 budget.