Gun Control That Works

About two years ago, David M. Kennedy, a researcher at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, had an idea about the youth violence that was plaguing Boston. He reasoned that the simplest way to stop kids from shooting each other was to get guns out of their hands. That meant figuring out how and why young people were obtaining guns and then finding a way to stop it.

Although he is an academic, Kennedy did not pose this as an academic question. He wanted to test it in the real world, with cops, prosecutors and youth workers as his co-experimenters, and the streets of Boston as his laboratory.

Thus began the Boston Gun Project, an unusual collaboration of Harvard researchers and nearly a dozen federal, state and local agencies. Guided by Kennedy’s findings, officials have developed an arsenal of strategies aimed at disrupting the illicit gun trade and quelling fear in neighborhoods where youths acquire guns for protection.

No one is declaring victory, but early results are striking. From June through October 1996, the first five months the program was fully implemented, homicides among youths ages 24 and under dropped by two-thirds in Boston. Such a dramatic decrease in a major crime category is virtually unheard of in U.S. cities. No juveniles, ages 17 and under, were killed by guns in Boston during 1996.

The program caught the attention of officials elsewhere. The federal government is using the Boston Gun Project as a model for a program that tracks the illegal gun trade in 17 U.S. cities. The architect of the project, 38-year-old Kennedy, is increasingly in demand at gatherings of academics and law enforcement officials across the country.

“What we are seeing is that the serious gang violence in Boston has stopped,” Kennedy said in an interview late last year.

A Swarthmore philosophy major with no advanced degrees, Kennedy came to Harvard in 1982 as a casewriter with an interest in troubled neighborhoods. He worked his way up the institutional ranks, becoming a senior casewriter and senior research analyst. He made a name for himself as an early academic booster of the emerging community policing movement, and in 1990 co-authored a book on the subject.

Bearded, with shoulder-length hair, Kennedy is the antithesis of the ivory-tower intellectual. His research takes him into the disparate worlds of cops, academics and street kids. “It’s wonderful,” he said, in an interview in his cramped, cluttered office overlooking Harvard Square.

When Kennedy first approached police and other officials with his ideas in early 1995, he met with some skepticism. “At first, I actually didn’t think the Harvard people would be able to come up with that much,” said Tracy Litthcut, Boston’s director of youth services.

Soon, though, the agencies, led by the Boston Police Department, came on board. At that time, a shooting was occurring roughly every day and a half, and many of the incidents were in busy areas, terrorizing neighborhoods.

“The level of frustration was so high that all of these people were willing to go through this process,” Kennedy said.

The initial working group included the Boston police gang unit; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; the U.S. Attorney and Suffolk County district attorney; state probation and parole departments; and the city’s youth outreach program. Kennedy kicked off the process by posing a simple question: Would it be possible to disarm a significant number of Boston’s youth by attacking the supply of guns?

The conventional wisdom was no. There are roughly 200 million privately owned guns in the United States–a virtually limitless supply–and the thinking both in law enforcement and academic circles has been that people who want guns will either steal them or find ones that originated in states with lax gun laws. In most police departments across the country, guns taken from youths were simply locked up, used as evidence in trials, and forgotten.

Kennedy and his Harvard colleagues, Anne M. Piehl and Anthony A. Braga, interviewed scores of young probationers and studied data on more than 1,500 guns taken from juveniles. What the researchers found surprised them: Young people preferred newer guns, mainly semiautomatic pistols, many of them 9 mm and .380 caliber. Young people tended to shun weapons taken in house burglaries. Also, more than a third of the guns had originated in Massachusetts, which has stringent gun laws and extensive record-keeping. This meant that tracking down dealers and purchasers would be easier than first thought.

“He pretty much identified the ‘hot’ guns,” said Philip Tortorella, supervisory special agent for ATF and a member of the working group. “It provided us with some great insight, and we’ve been able to focus on certain kinds of guns.”

ATF agents and police have stepped up gun investigations and made some well-publicized arrests of dealers, including one Boston man charged with converting semiautomatic weapons to machine guns and selling them on the street.

he other piece of the puzzle for Kennedy was the demand for guns. Why were youngsters arming themselves? By interviewing officials and youths, Kennedy concluded that youth homicide was largely a gang problem, with at least 60 percent of killings between 1990 and 1994 gang-related. He also discovered that most young people got guns not because they were dealing drugs or feuding with other youths but because they were afraid. Violence in some neighborhoods was so great that many youths felt they needed guns for protection.

The key is to attack supply and demand

A demand-side strategy soon emerged: Reduce the climate of fear by targeting those responsible for it. Police usually knew which individuals and gangs were causing violence. When problems flared, the interagency group came to call, promising a crackdown on any and all missteps, from unregistered cars to probation violations to jaywalking. At the same time, youngsters were offered a way out – protection from enemies, schooling, a job.

Last summer, about 20 members of the Vamp Hill Kings, a Dorchester gang, laid down their weapons when officials confronted them. They joined a city jobs program and were organized into a crew that picked up litter in the neighborhood where a few months earlier they had spread terror.

Meet the Author
Kennedy believes the Boston Gun Project offers important lessons for other cities with youth violence problems. “You can attack the illicit gun trade, which few places do now,” he said. “Also, the serious violence problem in most cities is concentrated among a small number of people. You do have levers you can use to discourage these people from spreading violence and fear.”

Robert Preer is a free-lance writer in Milton.