Why Mayor Walsh’s Gun-Buyback Program Is Moronic
Arrests aren’t the only thing, but they are a big thing.
Well, the new mayor of Boston made it almost exactly a month in office before doing something so utterly moronic that I feel compelled to heap verbal abuse upon him.
Marty Walsh has decided to institute a gun-buyback program.
Let me try to explain this through analogy: trying to reduce gun violence through a gun buyback program is like trying to reduce motor-vehicle accidents through a used-car trade-in offer.
If you’d like a more extensive argument, you can read the diatribe I penned when Tom Menino tried the strategy, back in mid 2006. I have data showing clearly that the level of gun violence remained virtually unchanged, both in the short term and for the next three years or so, after the buyback.
I will give Walsh partial credit for one thing: as gun violence has soared once again to the forefront of Boston’s consciousness, he has taken to mouthing a common phrase of criminal-justice reformers: “We can’t arrest our way out of the problem.” There is an important truth embedded therein: reducing violent crime must involve preventative strategies. And, it is encouraging that Walsh, unlike many politicians, is willing to empathize with the conditions of perpetrators—a prerequisite to understanding what assistance, enticements, or threats would actually affect their behavior.
But Walsh also needs to understand that while you can’t arrest your way out of the problem, you also can’t get out of the problem without arrests.
In fact, one of the core problems of Boston’s gun violence problem is that the Boston Police Department and Suffolk County District Attorney’s office are just atrociously awful at actually arresting and prosecuting people for shooting other people with guns. Just flat-out terrible.
A National Institute of Justice urban-homicide study found that a city’s low arrest rate leads to a higher murder rate in both that same year and the following one.
Most obviously, an unsolved murder leaves a murderer on the loose. More broadly, it reduces the deterrent effect of the law by showing that people can, in fact, get away with murder. And it leaves angry friends and family of the victim more apt to take justice and vengeance into their own hands.
In Boston’s case, with tragically low clearance rates for gun homicides and virtually non-existent clearance rates for non-fatal shootings, you get a proliferation of guns among the criminally minded, and an increased willingness to use them; and thus a level of gun violence that leads many ordinary people in certain neighborhoods to feel, quite rationally, that they need guns to protect themselves against it.
The Boston Police Department and Suffolk County District Attorney’s office, unfortunately, have tended to throw up their hands at the clearance problem—not surprisingly, since that would assign blame to themselves. Hence D.A. Dan Conley insisting in a mayoral debate last year that Boston’s homicide clearance rates are so low because our murders take place at night, making them hard to solve.
Likewise, back in 2002, the BPD explicitly gave up on improving clearance rates for shootings as the department itself described in the adoption of its ironically titled “Unsolved Shootings Project.” Gun violence soared in the following years. It is head-slappingly obvious, from our future vantage point, that the department might have benefited instead from addressing its awful, outdated homicide-investigation protocols; its thoroughly untrained, untested, and largely unprofessional ballistics unit; and its criminally incompetent fingerprint unit.
So here we are in 2014, going through many of the same motions we made in the last decade with many of the same people, too. Commissioner William Evans has chosen as new superintendent in charge of the Bureau of Investigative Services Robert Merner, who is much liked and respected inside the department but to me represents much of the same-old-same-old approach that Ed Davis made some headway in replacing. Davis, coming in from the outside without a personal stake in the way things had been done, was at least willing to shake up the homicide unit. It’s unsurprising that Evans, Merner, and Conley are not pointing at issues within the departments they have been large parts of for many years.
This is why Walsh needs to listen to a few more people, and then put Evans and Merner on a leash. He needs to tell them to pull the clearance rates for shootings up near national standards, or he’ll get someone who can. And also to work on the broader ways of changing the dynamics for potential perpetrators. It has to be both.
Unfortunately, the gun-buyback is neither.