The ‘Community Gun’

Law enforcement that targets the flow of guns rather than the minds of criminals is never crowned with success, but that never stops the failing authorities from trying the failed approach harder.

Welcome to Staten Island, NY, a mostly middle-class borough of the city that’s traditionally been home to Italian-Americans, a lot of whom work in public safety. But lately the island has some newer population elements, and some gang and violent crime they brought along. In traditional NYPD fashion, they’ve been targeting the gangbangers’ guns, while the courts and prosecutors deal lightly with the gangbangers. One of the more successful approaches has been stop and frisk.  Someone who’s up to no good is often very obvious to an experienced cop, even if the officer can’t articulate exactly what heuristics flag the skell. Under a controversial policy, the police have been stopping, frisking, and when they find guns or drugs, arresting folks.

A lot has been written about the civil liberties aspects of this, but what interests us is the way it works and does not work. (Whaaa? Hang on. We’ll explain).  It works, in that the gang members aren’t carrying guns. It does not work, in that they have found a work-around that means “not having a gun on the gangbangers’ bodies when NYPD stops them” does not equal “the gangbangers not having guns.” Their means is the “community gun.”

A community gun is a firearm stashed in a publicly accessible place, known to a number of people — i.e, everyone in a street, all members of a gang, etc. You’ve probably read reports that have said something like, “after the gang members argued, Doe left. But he armed himself with a Glock and returned.” Indeed. In many of these cases, Doe went and grabbed the community gun, stashed in a trash can, mailbox, dumpster, abandoned building, or abandoned car.

In a story about the community gun phenomenon resulting from a recent shooting that blew out a child’s eye, Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan told John Annese of the Staten Island Advance, “Somebody yelled, ‘go get the gat.’ And everybody knew where it was.”  He defined a “community gun” as “A gun that’s in a mailbox … that everybody knows if you need it you can use it and somebody can go and get it. It’s garbage pails. It’s the trunk of the abandoned car. Everybody knows where it is.”

Criminals are not a static population, they are adaptable, and there are unintended consequences to all law enforcement tactics — especially effective ones like stop & frisk. Criminals have used this particular adaptation for at least five years. (If you look, there are a lot of stories from 2007 and 2009). In 2007, a youthful criminal wounded another child with wild fire from a “community gun” he’d gotten to settle an argument. Caught, he was given a light sentence and is almost certainly already back on the streets. Knowing where a gun is.

But it doesn’t seem to occur to the prosecutor to blame the young, amoral monsters he’s prosecuting, and so light sentences and the revolving door remain the norm. Instead, Donovan pursues the guns. Your ticket to a nice plea bargain: tell the man where you got the gun.

Donovan seems surprised that they lie to him.