POSITION PAPER 4: KEEPING QUEENS SAFE FROM GUN VIOLENCE

Gun violence continues to plague our nation, with a constant stream of murders, assaults, domestic violence, hate crimes, and suicides tragically touching thousands of lives each year. But while mass shootings garner the vast majority of attention, the daily presence of gun violence in communities of color goes overlooked. Washington’s inaction in the face of this growing threat is forcing state and local leaders to step up and give this issue the attention it deserves. The next District Attorney of Queens must take a comprehensive approach to decreasing gun violence in the Borough, focusing both on specific measures to make it harder for dangerous individuals to access a gun and systemic changes that address gun violence like a public health issue.

New York State is a national leader on the issue of reducing gun violence, with some of the toughest gun control and gun safety laws in the country. As a result, violent crime involving a firearm has been continually declining in New York City and across the state. But gun laws alone will not eliminate this form of violence from our streets and neighborhoods. Police responded to 752 shootings in New York City in 2018, and a spike in homicides this year saw 8 more deaths in February 2019 compared to February 2018, along with nearly 100 nonfatal shootings.

 Throughout her career in public service, Melinda has been a strong advocate for reducing gun violence.  She supported stricter gun laws in the State Assembly and the City Council, and as Queens Borough President, she’s gone even further, working with community groups to implement Cure Violence techniques and focus on violence intervention. This innovative approach has shown tremendous results - one of the highest crime areas in Southeast Queens went from 17 shootings and 4 gun deaths per year to zero.

 As District Attorney, Melinda will ensure community advocates are at the center of new policies to fight gun violence. She will build on her past experience, continuing to partner with communities to reduce gun violence before it occurs; keeping illegal guns out of our borough; fighting for tougher laws in Albany; and using her office’s prosecutorial authority to hold accountable those who spread violence by bringing guns into our community or using them during a criminal act.

Violence Prevention

Curing Violence

Traditionally, District Attorneys and law enforcement rely on prosecution and punishment of those found breaking the law as a means of reducing gun violence. But punishing lawbreakers still leaves people victimized, and it fails to address the root causes of violence. As Borough President, Melinda partnered with anti-violence groups to promote a different approach to violence prevention, using a Cure Violence model that treats violence in the community as a public health issue that can be stopped by changing behaviors and targeting high-risk individuals, with a goal of interrupting violence before it escalates. As District Attorney, she’ll expand this model to all high-crime areas throughout Queens, working with local community and anti-violence organizations to give young people the tools to be active participants in reducing violence in their own neighborhoods. 

With a Cure Violence model, trained “violence intervention messengers” work to stop violent events from occurring or escalating, while working one-on-one with high-risk individuals to develop a personal relationship and help them deal with issues such as education, employment, criminal justice, mental health, or substance abuse.

In addition, staff conduct community outreach, distribute materials, and participate in local events to spread the message about rejecting violence, including hosting responses to every shooting where community members can unite in a rejection of violent behavior and norms.

Organizations such as Life Camp, Fathers Alive in the Hood, and King of Kings Foundation all implement elements of the Cure Violence model to change behavior in communities most affected by violence, as does the NYPD’s CeaseFire program. Currently, these programs only function in a select few neighborhoods, and a lack of sufficient resources has made it difficult for them to expand into schools. Programs that engage young people to provide them opportunities and alternatives that break the cycle of violence are an essential component of the Cure Violence model. As District Attorney, Melinda will invest seized asset funds into Cure Violence programs to expand their presence and ensure the model is being implemented as effectively and widely as possible. She will also use these funds to create additional programming to make sure young people are productively engaged with their community outside of school.

24/7 Gun Buyback Program

It is well established that gun buyback events are a cost-effective means of getting guns off our streets. But limiting these buybacks to just occasional events in specific neighborhoods by definition limits their effectiveness. Using the seized asset fund, Melinda will institute a 24/7 Gun Free Queens Initiative, so that any person can walk into any precinct at any time to turn in a gun and get it off our streets. 

Guns in the Home

Living with a gun in the home greatly increases one’s risk of a shooting injury and the vast majority of accidental shooting deaths among children happen in the home. With new legislation mandating safe storage of firearms for anyone with a child under 16, Melinda will work to educate parents about this new law while also providing free trigger locks for gun owners to keep their families safe.

Melinda will also work with the police, local senior centers, and churches to help educate parents, grandparents and other family members about what to do if they find a firearm in their home. Frequently, if a parent or other caregiver finds a gun they are reluctant to contact the police out of fear for fear of the very system meant to protect them. Instead, they need options for safely getting rid of the gun and guidance on addressing the issue with a young person who was responsible for the gun’s presence.

Finally, it will be standard practice to require anyone convicted of domestic violence or other violent crimes to surrender all firearms to the police as part of their sentencing.

Addressing Gun Trafficking

Between 2010 and 2015, 87% of the recovered guns in New York City were from out-of-state. With some of the strictest gun laws in the country, these guns flowing into New York from states with weaker gun laws greatly influence the likelihood of shootings in our borough. As District Attorney, Melinda will collaborate with other jurisdictions throughout the state and in neighboring states to share data to enhance the tracking of firearms, while also ensuring law enforcement has as much access to data and intelligence as possible in order to better target gun traffickers.

Second, the office will aggressively prosecute gun trafficking cases. Anyone who illegally sells or transfers more than five guns is guilty of a class C felony, and Melinda will prosecute these cases aggressively to send a clear message that gun trafficking will not be tolerated in our borough. 

Advocating for Change in Albany

With federal changes to gun laws highly unlikely, it will be incumbent on state legislatures to implement gun control in the near term. New York already has strict gun laws, but there is room for improvement in several areas. As a lifelong public servant with deep ties to the Borough of Queens, Melinda will be a strong advocate for certain improvements to the state’s gun regulation including:

  • A ban on possession of a firearm for those convicted of a violent crime, a hate crime or domestic violence.

  • Mandatory reporting of firearm thefts

  • Increasing the penalty on traffickers and straw purchasers of firearms

Conclusion

For too long, the conversations we have about addressing gun violence have been simplistically focused on removing guns from our streets at best, or unfairly pessimistic about the possibility for change at worst. While overall crime in our city has been declining, too many in our community live with an unacceptably high risk of being shot. A comprehensive gun violence policy that addresses the systemic causes of violence is necessary to create a community where people feel safer without a gun than they do with one.

Relying on rigorous techniques that have proven success, Melinda will take a holistic approach towards gun violence as District Attorney. Under her leadership, the office will focus on removing both the harmful presence of guns and the social pressure for violence that precipitates many shootings. Public safety and community stability will be at the forefront of this new method, and a more comprehensive set of tools that have already reduced shootings in certain neighborhoods of Queens will supplant the traditional reliance on prosecution and incarceration.

Sources:

https://www.criminaljustice.ny.gov/crimnet/ojsa/Crime-in-NYS-2017-Preliminary-5-10-18.pdf

https://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/ny-metro-homicides-surge-february-nypd-20190304-story.html

https://injury.research.chop.edu/violence-prevention-initiative/types-violence-involving-youth/gun-violence/gun-violence-facts-and#.XJOwvBNKgWp

https://www.democratandchronicle.com/story/news/politics/albany/2019/03/04/another-gun-control-law-new-york-safe-storage-home-coming/3060091002/

https://targettrafficking.ag.ny.gov/#guncrimesFN

Marc Lapidus