Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Busting a cap in Gun Buyback Programs: Using sociological principles to assess the “success” of Boston’s gun buyback program- Stephanie Bissonnette

In the early 1990’s gun violence and violent crimes in America were quickly reaching an all time high (6). Every city was being affected by youth violence in urban areas and a number of proposed interventions took place in an attempt to quell the violence and alleviate the fear of urban citizens in America. Boston in particular became a model of safety and community interventions against gun violence (8). But the years, 2004, 2005, and the past summer of 2006 proved that gun violence was not gone for good but a trend that ebbs and flows. Boston especially felt the effects of this growing violence as the highest homicide rate of 2006 reached the highest in years by the month of June. Boston saw 550 shootings in 1990, 133 in 1997, 268 in 2004, and 341 in 2005. (13) Currently Boston is on track to reach 616 shootings in 2006, with this past summer being the deadliest summer Boston has seen in years. Critics and researchers looking to find reasons or place blame for the increasing violence have noticed a comfort or even laziness among city officials and law enforcement in Boston during the time when violence and crime rate were lower. Some cite cutting funding for youth programs and summer jobs. It wasn’t until 24 murders occurred this year that Governor Mitt Romney finally allocated $3.7 million dollars for ending youth gun violence in 2006. (13)

Probably the most publicized intervention to come out of the increased violence in Boston in 2006 was the citywide gun buyback program from June through August. Using the example of a similar program that was implemented in Boston between 1993 and 1996 as well as in other cities across the country, Mayor Thomas Menino, Acting Commissioner Al Goslin, and other community leaders began a program in which any gun could be turned into one of 6 assigned turn in points with no questions asked in exchange for a $200 Target gift card. (1) A hotline was also started that allowed anyone with tips to finding a gun or information on gun ownership to call anonymously to help take guns off the streets. When announcing the program Mayor Menino stated that the goal of the program was to reduce gun violence by reducing the number of guns on the street. At the end of August, the Boston gun buyback had recovered 1,000 guns which prompted officials to hold press conferences hailing the program a huge success that “exceeded expectations” and “sent a message to criminals that violence would not be tolerated”. (1) Pictures of police and officials standing at tables covered in guns from the program were printed in the local papers and all of Boston’s officials seemed to be patting each other on the back.

Yet hailing the program a success is not only premature but potentially inaccurate. The goal of the program was to lower gun violence, specifically among youth, and yet it has been heralded a success based solely on the number of guns turned in. Furthermore, the murder rate for the year is still on track to surpass the year before with the summer months not necessarily showing any significant decrease in homicide. Statistics show that many of the guns available to youths on the street are actually guns that are stolen or bought illegally. (8) Therefore the number of guns that could potentially be used to commit a crime may be more than the estimated amount, making the 1,000 turned in arbitrary because no one is sure how many guns are truly available. In an evaluation of the Seattle gun buyback program in 1996, the researchers asked questions to all citizens about owning a gun in an attempt to estimate the potential number of guns available for gun related violent crimes. (6) It was found that the 1,700 handguns turned in represented roughly 1% of all handguns in Seattle homes, meaning that the program would have a negligible effect on gun crimes. It seems unlikely that the current situation in Boston is drastically different. Moreover, there is no data to show that 1,000 guns represent a large proportion of guns actually on the streets.

While gun violence is an important issue for legislatures and officials, whose concern is public safety, it is also a problem for public health officials and the medical community. Hospitals see an influx of gun shot wounds and with the increase in technology wounds are now becoming harder to treat thanks to faster guns with higher calibers. (8) Furthermore there is an important dose response relationship in gun violence making it a public health issue. This suggests that early exposure to violence in childhood leads to other problems such as delinquency, violence as an adult, and other health and mental difficulties. (13) Gun violence also influences a population’s life expectancy because victims of violence tend to be younger. Furthermore, gun violence creates a community of fear that has repercussions in many areas of health, whether it is psychological health or physical health, such as hypertension or other stress related health problems. It also affects not only the victims but also family structures both psychologically and economically. A solution to gun violence seems to only be plausible with a merging of public health, medicine, legislature, and law to ensure that gun violence is not reduced by putting a temporary band aid on the problem. Viewing gun buyback programs through the eyes of public health, and social and behavioral sciences in particular, reveals the ways in which the program is lacking and unsuccessful as well as helps to show why interventions that get to the root of the problem may help reduce gun violence in a more permanent way.

The first major flaw with a gun buyback program is its solely environmental approach to gun violence. While it is wise to acknowledge that the number of guns on the streets and the easy accessibility of guns is a large problem that leads to increased gun violence, it cannot be the only focus. Individual behaviors that cause a person to seek a gun are also part of the problem, as well as the reasons that a gun, once acquired, is used to commit a crime. When evaluating the Seattle program the reported reasons for owning a gun were also surveyed. (6) Thirty percent of respondents stated that they owned a gun for family and personal protection. Although significantly smaller, there were also reports that some people owned guns for status (2%) or because they never knew when they would need one (3%). These statistics beg the question of whether or not these people who felt they needed guns for protection felt that way because of the high number of individuals in their respective communities who owned guns or whether it was simply fear of any kind of violence. Unless the gun buyback program eliminated all guns on the street, there would always be a fear of safety and therefore a reason for people to arm themselves in self defense. Researchers have stated that “ urban environment has become so threatening even for youth not involved in the drug trade, that many are arming themselves (and engaging in other nominally self-protective behavior such as joining gangs) for self-defense.” (11). Eliminating the guns from these gangs would be the first part of reducing the fear of gun violence because without removing guns from criminal minded community members, those who protect themselves will not turn guns over either.

The idea of the need for safety is addressed by Viktor Maslow in his hierarchy of needs. Maslow ranks the needs of human beings with the most basic such as physiological on the bottom and the most advanced such as self-esteem and self actualization on top. The idea behind Maslow’s hierarchy is that without satisfying the lowest needs one cannot attain those above it and cannot ever become self actualized. Maslow ranks safety as the second fundamental need to a human. Without fulfilling the need for safety Maslow’s hierarchy suggests that citizens cannot progress higher. With the safety of a gun under ones’ belt, even under the assumption that it is only for emergency use, citizens in communities where gun violence is rampant can then progress to other levels on the hierarchy. Owning and carrying a gun may also fulfill such higher needs of establishing esteem in that it helps produce identity and gain respect. Sociologist Jeffrey Fagan points out that “Owning a gun can be a symbol of masculinity and carrying a gun a source of identity” (7).

The theory that safety comes first not only suggests that those turning in guns are not those who most need protection, but also gives a hint as to what kinds of interventions would be successful. Data has shown that gun violence reduces with an increase in police patrols, suggesting again the need for community members to feel safe in their everyday lives. (15) The knowledge that a person’s well being is a priority to city officials may help to eliminate the fear of being unsafe that can come with handing over guns. Coupled with a buyback program, increased police patrols seems likely to do more to reduce gun violence than the current system. Furthermore, access to safe locations and protected areas would help communities feel safe. Opening community centers 24 hours a day or providing after school and weekend programs that are staffed and secured would also be a solution to the need for safety on the streets without the need for guns. Night walks and safety groups in neighborhoods, an idea that urban sociologist Jane Jacobs calls “eyes on the streets”, are also interventions that would increase the feeling of security that is so innate to human beings (9). Developing and implementing programs that provide security to the community is one way to reduce gun crimes by taking sociological needs of community members into account.

Another way that gun buyback program has been a failure is by not concentrating on a target audience. Often public health officials classify neighborhoods and groups of people who are the most likely to commit crimes or be victims of crimes as ‘high risk” or “at risk” populations. These areas and people are often the most affected by gun violence. However, the gun buyback program does not seek out these at risk populations. Instead they accept guns all over the city from any number of people from all demographics. And while it is important to attempt to remove any gun that could potentially be used to commit a gun related crime, care should be taken to make sure that at risk communities are specifically targeted as a place where the number of guns needs to be reduced. As it stands, the 1,000 guns that were turned in this past summer in Boston may not be from such at risk communities and therefore may not be guns that would reduce violent gun crimes. Furthermore city officials have stated and statistics have shown that many of these at risk groups are urban youth. Therefore youth should be the major target to reduce gun violence in the city instead of this broad population approach.

Part of the problem with not having a target audience specifically is that the message does not get heard by communities who need the message the most. Once a target audience is established and a demographic of that community examined, methods can be implemented that would make the message of reducing gun violence and creating a peaceful city effective in the areas that are most affected by gun violence. Using the theory of persuasive communication could successfully help a buyback program work in a city such as Boston. Currently gun violence is felt the most by youth, especially lower income urban minority communities. Persuasive communication theory tells us that a message gets received more effectively if there are similarities between the speaker and the audience. (5) While community leaders, specifically faith leaders of the black Baptist churches, were on board and promoting the Boston gun buyback program the day of its announcement, the faces behind the program were mostly middle aged, middle class white leaders and police officers. Furthermore the messages, even if sent by black Baptist faith leaders, are not guaranteed to be heeded by urban youth. Photographs published in newspapers of press conferences and the “successful” tables covered in guns were not of black ministers and community youth embracing the program and its success, but instead police officers and city officials. The small similarities between the speaker and the audience may have been a deterrent for black males residing in at risk communities to hand over their weapons. An audience will not listen to someone who they feel does not understand the life they live and their experiences, even if listening will better their health and safety. To get a higher turn out from the truly at risk population and to retrieve guns that are most likely to be used for violent gun crimes, representatives promoting the program at press conferences, at turn in points, in advertisements and commercials should have been community members and people who more closely resembled the audience who needs the reduction of gun violence the most.

Furthermore, gun violence across the country is predominately being perpetuated by urban youths who are impulsive, rebellious, and arming themselves in increasing numbers. Again persuasive communication theory can help to attract the attention and participation of these young members by appealing to them in ways that they need. Persuasive theories look predominately at the way people understand and cognitively translate messages in order to make a behavior change. (5) Theories suggest that it is much harder to reach the final goal of changing behaviors just through information alone, but that to make a true attitude change about a behavior the information must be understood by an individual in a way that causes the individual to have a cognitive reaction to it. Therefore, simply stating that guns are harmful and should be turned in is not enough. Instead buyback proponents should be appealing to those who know victims or have been victims and asking them to help stop the cycle of violence. They should entail finding out what youth residing in at risk areas believe are important and their ideals instead of telling youth what is right and wrong.

Along with the idea that the Boston gun buyback program does not target the group that truly needs it, the program also advertised its mission in a way that may have dissuaded citizens from turning in guns. The Boston gun buyback program uses language in such a way that is supported by the sociological ideas of labeling theories and self identification. For instance, many researchers and pubic officials in the late 1990’s and early 2000 gave the name “super predator” to young people who were increasingly aggressive and arming themselves. (8) Negative words like “super predators”, “criminals”, “delinquent, and “deviants”, do not seem to encourage positive behavior amongst young people. Furthermore the way that people identify themselves in relation to these “criminals” and “delinquents” who city officials suggest need to turn in guns may further discourage participation in the program. Labeling theories work on the premise that “criminals are not evil people who engage in wrong acts but people who have criminal status placed upon them by the system and community”. (2, 3) Furthermore, labeling theory suggests that stigmatizing people with labels like “criminal” promotes deviant behavior and becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. When they believe that society sees them as such, youth are not going to miraculously turn around and act in accordance with what the authorities want. Instead they may act the role that these authorities are placing on them through their labeling. Public opinion even shows that this is a common belief in the community, as was stated by a Dorchester man in the Boston Globe who said the buyback program was a “good concept. It won’t work” because those young people he knew would never walk into a police station to turn in a weapon. (16). Therefore, suggesting that people who carry guns are “criminals”, even though it is a constitutional right to own a gun, sends a contradictory message to those who carry guns.

Messages sent out to officials when speaking of the program had statements of ‘crime fighting” and “criminals” and “sending a message to criminals”. The fact is that most gun crimes are not committed by people with a criminal record. (8) The myth that a person who robs banks and sells drugs will then use the gun in a senseless homicide has long since been proven false. While using a gun may lead to criminal behavior, many people who arm themselves, especially in at risk areas for safety reasons, do not see themselves as criminals and therefore are not the target of gun buyback programs as they are currently advertised. The idea of social identity theory is that people have many different qualities and associations that make up their own self-identity. (4) The way that a person views their identity, therefore, determines which groups of people they identify with, making in-groups and out-groups. If youth who own guns do not identify themselves as “criminals”, which is the group that police are suggesting the buyback program deters, they will not feel the need to change their behavior by turning in a gun. The concentration on stopping “criminals” therefore does not help to reduce violence among those who most need it because they may not see themselves as criminals.

If the leaders and organizers of Boston’s gun buyback program were to take these ideas of labeling and self identification into account, they would be able to market such a program to the community in a way that helps the gun buyback successfully lower gun violence, which in the end is the stated ultimate goal of the intervention. Instead of inundating youth and community with language such as ‘criminal”, and ‘predators”, officials should be recognizing the qualities of targeted communities and using positive labeling and language that appeals to those who perpetuate violence. Communities, and especially youth, want to know that their lives are a “priority” to the government, that their “contribution to society is important” for the well being of their community. Boston youth tried to show this in June by attending a town council meeting to get more money for summer jobs and community programs. (12) Signs that said “$1.2 million for youth jobs will increase summer safety“, “prove that youth are a priority to you“, and “don’t wait until we’re dead“surrounded the council members and gave valuable (yet ignored) insight into how these youths want to be viewed in Boston: not as potential violent “criminals” but as contributing members of society that want to feel safe in their own neighborhoods. Marketing language such as “criminal” should be replaced with words like “priority”, “youth”, “community”, “together”, and so forth. This change would attract more of the intended target population. It would also send a consistent message of non-judgment to youth and suggest the positive impact youth can have on the community they belong to.

The jury will be out until the end of the year as to whether the Boston gun buyback program implemented this past summer truly reduced gun violence in Boston. While interventions that attempt to lower the number of guns on the street have the best of intentions and seem to make sense in theory (lowering the number of guns means lowering the number of gun crimes those guns could commit) the fact is that the problem of gun violence is rooted in larger issues that law and legislature simply do not address. There is a need for public health officials and medical communities develop interventions that use social and behavioral sciences principles to help alleviate and address the root causes of the problem of urban violence and more specifically urban youth violence. Furthermore, interventions that ignore important theories and concepts such as targeting the right audience using persuasive communication, as well as marketing so that labeling and self identification benefit and don’t hinder the intervention, is a must for success. Gun violence may never truly go away, but 616 shootings is too high a number and creates a community that youth should not grow up in, adults should not have to learn to live in, and public health officials should be concerned with.

1. “Gun Buyback Collects 1,000 firearms”. US State news. July 20, 2006.
2. “Labeling theory” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labeling_theory
3. “Labeling theory” http://www.hewett.norfolk.sch.uk/curric/soc/crime/labeling.htm
4. “Social Identity theory” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_identity
5. Baker, Sarah, Petty, Richard, Gleicher, Faith. “Persuasion Theory and Drug Abuse
Prevention”. Health Communication. 3(4), 193-203. 1991
6. Callahan Charles, Rivara Frederick, Koepsell Thomas. “Money for Guns:
Evaluation of the Seattle Gun Buy-Back Program”. Public health Reports. July-
August 1994 (109)4:472-477.
7. Fagan, Jeffrey, Wilkinson, Deanna. “Guns, Youth Violence, and Social Identity in
Inner Cities”. Crime and Justice. 106. 105-188. 1998.
8. Helmuth, Laura. “Has America’s Tide of Violence Receded for Good?” Science. 28
July 2000. p. 582-585.
9. Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities, New York: Vintage
Books, 1961.
10. Karnasiewicz, Sarah. “Streets of Ire”. August 25,
11. Kennedy David, Piehl Anne, Braga Anthony. “Youth Violence in Boston: Gun
Markets, Serious Youth Offenders, and a Use-Reduction Strategy”. Law and
Contemporary Problems. 59(1). 1996
12. McIntosh, Jonathan. “Boston City Council’s White Majority Abandons Youth of
Color”. Boston.indymedia.org/feature/display/186247. June 30, 2006.
13. Pollack, Stanley. “Bringing Peace to Boston’s Streets”. The Boston Globe. Op-Ed.
July 18, 2006.
14. Pridemore, William. “Recognizing Homicide as a Threat to Public Health”.
Homicide Studies. May 2003. p. 1-24
15. Sherman, Lawrence. “Reducing Gun Violence: What works, what doesn’t, what’s
promising”. Criminal Justice. 1(1) p. 11-25. 2001.
16. Vennochi, Joan. “Gun Buybacks a Shot in the Dark”. The Boston Globe. Op-Ed. June
1, 2006.


Anonymous MA Firearms School said...

It is not easy to assess the crime rate on the basis of few months survey reports. You need to check overall crime events throughout the year right after any changes in the gun laws took place in Boston. Thank you for this informative article.

4:23 AM  

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