The guns of Boston

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  July 6, 2006

Let’s say you currently carry a cheap, 1990s-era Lorcin, Bryco, Raven, or Phoenix handgun — as many on the streets of Boston do, judging by what the Boston Police Department typically confiscates. With $200 for your trade-in (probably more than you paid for it; the median price paid in recent years for a handgun in the Chicago black market is $150, according to a study released last year), you’re halfway to a refurbished Glock 22 semi-automatic with two 10-round magazines, currently on Super Special for $399 at Four Seasons Firearms in Woburn Center — home of the “Glock Wall” of pre-owned handguns. Or, if you’re looking for a smaller, easily concealed weapon, you can get a 15-ounce 637 Smith & Wesson .38; a 2004 Guns & Ammo “Gun of the Year” Ruger 45 ACP double-action; or a hot-selling Sig Sauer Mosquito, with adjustable sites and sliding ambidextrous safety — perfect for the southpaw gangbanger.

Of course, these guns probably cost a little more on the street, because most of the buyers — thanks to their age or their criminal record — are unable to buy them from a legitimate gun dealer.

That’s where the black market comes in, which functions in two ways. One is through “straw purchasers,” who buy guns legally on behalf of those who cannot, often in other states with more lenient laws. The other is through theft. More than a half million firearms are stolen every year in the US. In fact, some in local law enforcement tell the Phoenix that handguns have become the most desirable item for burglars, because they are small, valuable, and easily sold.

In Boston, these guns are often filtered to the streets through “brokers” who have graduated from gang life, according to recent court filings of federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ABF) agents. These brokers — many of whom live in the suburbs — buy guns from straw purchasers and thieves, and sell them to gangbangers who take them back to the streets, to use or resell.

Many believe that if public policy could significantly reduce straw purchasing and gun thievery, it would raise the black-market price of guns, thus reducing their presence on the street. However, gun manufacturers and the National Rifle Association’s friends in the Bush administration, Congress, and state governments, have worked hard in recent years to keep the pipelines to the black market open. Theft-deterrent gun locks and “safe storage” laws that reduce theft are not widespread; federal prosecutors, including Boston’s Michael Sullivan, rarely prosecute for firearm theft; and inspection of licensed gun dealers suspected of selling to prohibited buyers has virtually ceased. Since George W. Bush took office, the ATF has hidden its treasure-trove of national gun-crime tracing data from the public and researchers, as detailed in a report by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, released this April.

Menino’s current attempt, along with that of Michael Bloomberg of New York, to use a “Mayors’ Summit on Illegal Guns” to formulate and lobby for nationwide policy changes is well intentioned. But its effects won’t be felt for many months, if not years.

Threats unheeded
If the supply can’t be stopped, what can be done about demand? Philip Cook, co-author of the “Aiming for Evidence-Based Gun Policy” study, believes that criminals and gang members ultimately make rational choices about carrying guns. If costs and liabilities were to rise, fewer would carry them, he says.

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