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Hub group looks to past for solutions to gun trouble

St. John Barned-Smith

There were 65 homicides in Boston in 2007, down from 74 in 2006 and 75 in 2005, a 10-year high. While those totals are far lower than the 152 murders the city saw in 1990, the year the original Citizens for Safety was founded, they are more than twice as high as the low-water mark of 31 homicides — none of them juveniles — recorded in 1999.

According to Boston Police Department (BPD) statistics, the city had recorded 54 homicides, including 40 involving firearms, as of Nov. 23, compared with 64 and 50, respectively, by the same date last year. There had also been 250 non-fatal shooting incidents in Boston so far this year, compared to 258 as of Nov. 23, 2007.

Citizens for Safety has tried to harness the community’s concern into grassroots action. One attempt was to hold a series of firearm-awareness workshops called “traffick jams” throughout the city, in conjunction with the Mayor’s Office, the BPD and the Dorchester-based nonprofit organization Project RIGHT (“Rebuild and Improve Grove Hall Together”).

Through these community events, Robinson’s group, its partners and many in law enforcement are working to change a culture of silence surrounding gun crimes, encouraging increased community cooperation that they say is one of the most important elements in curbing the violence.

“We can saturate the streets with agents, detectives and investigators, but there are people out there who know who [the criminals] are, and could provide information,” said Jim McNally, a spokesman for the Boston office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF).

Citizens for Safety is also trying to debunk what it calls “gun fact myths,” such as pointing out where guns used in crime come from — 60 percent originate from just 1 percent of America’s gun dealers, according to the ATF — and to change the battleground of the gun debate from a gun-owner’s rights issue to a crime issue.

“Felons and youth under the age of 21 do not have a legal right to possess handguns,” reads Citizens for Safety’s Web site, “Gun owners should champion policies designed to prevent criminals and youth from accessing handguns, and many do.”

Another practice against which the group is trying to build some momentum is “straw purchases” — transactions in which individuals who aren’t allowed to buy guns do so through proxies, usually at gun shows or through private dealers. Citizens for Safety has used its traffick jams to push for legislation that would implement harsher penalties for straw purchases, and has pushed for vendors to perform background checks for all purchases.

The group plans to keep the pressure on Massachusetts elected officials through a grassroots postcard campaign, where victims of gun violence send letters to state officials describing the personal stories of their experiences.

“I was hanging out with my friend and before the night was over he was shot dead for no reason and I don’t wanna end up like that,” reads one card.

On the local level, some legislators appear to be listening. City Councilor-at-Large Michael Flaherty last month proposed anti-gun measures that would restrict the sale, ownership or use of armor-piercing bullets, and enforce mandatory minimum prison sentences for those found with illegally-owned guns in their homes. And Mayor Thomas M. Menino has long been a proponent of strict gun laws — since he and his New York counterpart, Michael Bloomberg, founded the Mayors Against Illegal Guns coalition in 2006, the group has grown to include 328 members in 40 states across the country.

That sort of commitment is just what Robinson and her colleagues are looking for.

“We don’t expect any one mayor or governor or [attorney general] to do this themselves, but we do expect them to be part of this effort,” she said.

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