Mixed reaction to Walsh’s call for a gun buyback; Mayor’s move follows shooting death of nine-year-old boy

Dave Eisenstadter, Special to the Reporter
Feb. 13, 2014

Boston Mayor Martin Walsh has called for the return of a city-organized gun buyback program following last Friday’s shooting death of a nine-year-old boy. The victim’s 14-year-old brother, who is alleged to have shot him in their Morton Street apartment while “handling the firearm recklessly,” has been charged with involuntary manslaughter and illegal gun possession. The names of both the boy and his teenage brother have been withheld by authorities.

Walsh, who held a press conference outside the murder scene last Friday, said the buyback idea was being discussed by police officials and clergy prior to the boy’s violent death, which marked the tenth homicide so far this year in the city. Boston last conducted a buyback program in 2006.

Nancy Robinson, executive director of Jamaica Plain-based Citizens for Safety, said the buyback plan could be a great first step toward eliminating some guns on the street, but it will not stop the illegal trafficking into Boston neighborhoods. Most shootings in Boston are by people who do not have the legal right to have a gun, she said on Tuesday. “It’s not enough to have a gun buyback program. We’ve got to do something about this constant steady stream – this river – of illegal guns being pumped into our community.”

Monalisa Smith, president and CEO of Mothers for Justice and Equality, said support programs for families were another important component to addressing violence. Smith speculated that if the mother knew the gun was in the house, she wouldn’t have needed a gun buyback program to get rid of it. “The son had needs that weren’t being met,” Smith said. “We as a community, clergy, police, and others, need to be working together to coordinate our efforts so that we are supporting the families,” she said.

Smith said she supported expanding programs such as Operation Home Front, an initiative in which Boston police and clergy visit homes of at-risk youth. She added that finding summer jobs and other entry-level positions for youth that could lead to careers are important.

Tina Chery, co-founder and president of the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute in Dorchester, said a gun buyback could be an important component of a larger movement to address gun violence. “By itself, it is not effective,” Chery said Tuesday. “It will take some guns off the streets; it will not address the issue as to why children feel they need to pick up guns to kill people who look like them.”

“We must do something; doing nothing is unacceptable,” Chery said. “But this is a very short-term solution to a very complex problem.”

In addition to the gun buyback program, Chery said, the mayor should be providing children with the tools to address grief and conflict in their lives. In the same way that anti-smoking campaigns have shown smoking to be unhealthy, she said, anti-violence education can train young people not to resort to violence. But the training must start early. “If we truly want to invest in reducing violence, we are going to have to invest in programs as early as preschool.”

The majority of community investment goes to public safety and criminal justice, which addresses problems after they arise, said Chery, who added that she has enjoyed working with Walsh on the issue of violence in the past, and supports his work. Race is also a consideration, she said, and that less attention has been paid to the issue because the deadly shootings have mainly affected black youth. “It’s not changing until we start to value black lives,” she said.

Jim Wallace, executive director of Massachusetts-based Gun Owners Action League (GOAL), said his organization is against gun buybacks because the organization has not seen evidence that gun buybacks were effective at decreasing crime or accidents.

“I cannot imagine a criminal who has a valuable illegal firearm that is going to turn that in for a $50 or $100 gift card,” Wallace said. “[A buyback] looks good and feels good, but it doesn’t accomplish much.” He noted that GOAL has a bill in the House to create a criminal firearms and trafficking division attached to the Attorney General’s office to track and prosecute people who deal guns illegally.

Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office spokesman Jake Wark said his office was reserving judgment on the initiative until it sees details. “Reducing gun violence and taking guns off the streets are things we all agree on, but it is premature to comment,” he said, adding that one way to help reduce violence is for residents to feel empowered to call police and report illegal firearms. “That makes an officer’s job much safer and much easier,” he said.

Citizens for Safety’s Robinson said police and other law enforcement officials should treat shootings the way that the FDA treats tainted food recalls – by tracking the offending material to its source. That way, just as production is shut down on salmonella-infected peanut butter, the trafficking of illegal guns can be stopped before it comes into the city, she said. “Illegal guns are toxins, and we have to find out where the toxins are coming from.”

Last year, Citizens for Safety started “Ladies Involved in Putting a Stop to Inner-City Killing,” also known as LIPSTICK. The program seeks to educate young women who are often recruited to purchase guns for traffickers.

Through LIPSTICK, Citizens for Safety teaches young women that hiding a gun or buying a gun for someone else can have deadly consequences.

Abrigal (Stanley) Forrester, 43, is a Dorchester native who works with city youth on violence prevention. He agrees that a gun buyback should only be deployed as part of a larger, “holistic” strategy. “We have to respect the time we are in,” he said.

“Before [illegal gun possession] was propagated by the drug trade. We’re in a different climate now with a younger population and [the drug trade] is just one piece. The primary driver is safety. We have good young folks who feel that because they are being exposed to violence at a high level, they don’t feel safe in their own communities, especially because some of them aren’t being led by an authority figure.”

Forrester says the Walsh administration should move ahead with a buyback initiative. “But the next step needs to be getting men and women and families in a room. We know the young folks who are the perpetrators. We need to use the community as a liaison. We need to have a system of accountability so young people who are perpetrators hear that message: That we know who you are and we want to deter you from death or long term incarceration.”

Reporter editor Bill Forry contributed to this report.