The guns of Boston

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  July 6, 2006

Indeed. Three of the city’s 12 police districts, covering much of Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan, account for half of this year’s aggravated assaults and recent stabbings, but three-quarters of the city’s shootings and homicides. Even without considering the scores of serious, often debilitating, injuries, and the extraordinary fear that gunfire spreads among innocent residents — especially when police leave more than 90 percent of those shooters on the streets — it’s apparent the area is wracked by violence. “There is no counterpart with other weapons to driveby shootings and stray bullets,” the authors of the Duke study write. So the problem is clear: those three districts are overflowing with guns.

Case in point, other seemingly violent neighborhoods have been spared death and trauma because even the most violent criminals in those areas don’t carry handguns. East Boston has a violence problem, with a dozen stabbings in the past two months, for instance. And South Boston, Charlestown, and downtown Boston — especially Chinatown — are experiencing a frightening rise in drug-related violence, says City Councilor Michael Ross, who chaired a Special Committee on Youth Violent Crime Prevention that issued its report earlier this month. Yet those neighborhoods aren’t seeing surging homicide rates. In fact, just five percent of assaults in such places involve firearms.

Yet in the three gun-violence hot spots, Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan, assaults are four times more likely to involve guns — that’s 20 percent of all 2005 assaults, up from 15 percent in 2004 — leaving people dead in the streets, and others huddling fearfully inside.

“It’s almost like a tale of two cities,” says Ross.

Unfortunately, it’s one thing to recognize — as Mayor Thomas Menino and others do — that Boston’s problem lies with the prevalence of guns on its streets. It’s another thing to fix that problem. This much is clear, however: efforts now under way won’t do it.

Supply aplenty
Criminal-justice researchers talk about supply-and-demand solutions for reducing gun prevalence in violent areas. But at least for now, cities like Boston will have to focus on the demand side, because the availability of cheap, black-market guns is not going away any time soon. Efforts to block that market are being effectively squashed: there is a concerted national political effort, driven by the gun industry and the National Rifle Association (NRA), to ensure the survival of the black market for handguns.

That claim has nothing to do with leftist, gun-hating paranoia or with legitimate gun ownership. The gun industry needs to sell roughly two million handguns in the US every year, and it simply could not do that if the black market were to wither. Legitimate handgun owners rarely need to buy new guns; the industry’s profits require more repeat-business customers.

Street criminals fit that bill: they tend to use cheaper guns that malfunction or fall apart; their guns get confiscated by police; and they occasionally ditch guns that could link them to specific shootings. Plus, criminals periodically upgrade from embarrassingly uncool models to ones that better reflect their desired stature and power.

This is one reason why Menino’s “Aim for Peace” gun-buy-back program is probably doing more harm than good. Very few people use these programs to turn in their only gun. But those who turn in a weapon receive, in effect, a “no-questions-asked” $200 trade-in toward an upgrade (in the form of a Target gift card) — helping street criminals move up to more accurate, powerful, and concealable weapons.

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