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Buy-back program will run ballistics tests on all guns turned in

Providence Journal logo Providence Journal 10/16/2020 Madeleine List
a man holding a sign: Mark Fisher, right, speaks to reporters as Black Lives Matter Rhode Island holds a press conference at a parking lot on Broad Street in Providence to discuss recent violence in the city. [The Providence Journal / Sandor Bodo] © Sandor Bodo Mark Fisher, right, speaks to reporters as Black Lives Matter Rhode Island holds a press conference at a parking lot on Broad Street in Providence to discuss recent violence in the city. [The Providence Journal / Sandor Bodo]

PROVIDENCE — A gun buyback program organized by the cities of Providence and Central Falls will begin on Saturday but with a new policy in place — police will now run ballistics tracing on every weapon that's turned in.

a close up of a man wearing a hat: Gary "Brother Gary" Dantzler speaks to reporters on Broad Street about recent violence in the city. [The Providence Journal / Sandor Bodo] © Sandor Bodo Gary "Brother Gary" Dantzler speaks to reporters on Broad Street about recent violence in the city. [The Providence Journal / Sandor Bodo]

Community members and local activists, however, are still questioning whether such a program is the correct response to the recent weeks of shootings and homicides that have plagued the cities.

The original policy of the program, announced in September, was that firearms would not be tested for matches with ongoing cases and that guns would be destroyed at the end of the program.

The Rhode Island Second Amendment Coalition filed a temporary restraining order in Providence Superior Court to halt the program, claiming that destroying a stolen weapon would violate the rights of its owner. A judge on Friday denied the order.

a couple of people that are talking to each other: Iasha Hall speaks as Black Lives Matter Rhode Island holds a press conference at a parking lot on Broad Street to discuss recent violence in the city. [The Providence Journal / Sandor Bodo] © Sandor Bodo Iasha Hall speaks as Black Lives Matter Rhode Island holds a press conference at a parking lot on Broad Street to discuss recent violence in the city. [The Providence Journal / Sandor Bodo]

The buyback will continue as planned on Saturday with the new policy in place, said Commissioner of Public Safety Steven Paré. In Providence and Central Falls, those who turn in their guns will receive Visa gift cards in amounts of $100 for each rifle or shotgun, $200 for each handgun and $500 for each firearm that has been previously reported stolen.

"We will not ask for names, we will not ask for identification, we will not have any pictures or video of people that are bringing them in so that is completely anonymous," he said, "but the one step that we will be taking is the ballistic testing."

a man wearing glasses and smiling at the camera: PROVIDENCE, RI 10/16/20 Mark Fisher speaks to reporters as Black Lives Matter Rhode Island holds a press conference at a parking lot on Broad Street to discuss recent violence in the city. [The Providence Journal / Sandor Bodo] © Sandor Bodo PROVIDENCE, RI 10/16/20 Mark Fisher speaks to reporters as Black Lives Matter Rhode Island holds a press conference at a parking lot on Broad Street to discuss recent violence in the city. [The Providence Journal / Sandor Bodo]

Providence City Council members on Thursday night passed a non-binding resolution calling on the city to test all guns received through the buyback program or cancel the initiative altogether.

"I understand the effort and the intention of a gun buyback, however, if we're unable to trace back how these guns were used or if they were used in violent crimes or to be able to determine if these guns can help solve an open case, it doesn't necessarily resolve the issue," said Ward 3 City Councilwoman Nirva LaFortune, who represents Mount Hope, Hope Village Summit, Collyer Park and Blackstone.

The issue is personal for LaFortune, who said that June marked 15 years since she lost her partner to gun violence in New York City. A bullet intended for another target struck him in the head and killed him as he was leaving a store, she said. The case remains unsolved.

"I'm sure there's been gun buybacks in New York City," she said. "But we will never know if any of those guns returned was the one that was used in his murder."

a woman talking on a cell phone: PROVIDENCE, RI 10/16/20 Anita Bruno speaks as Black Lives Matter Rhode Island holds a press conference at a parking lot on Broad Street to discuss recent violence in the city. [The Providence Journal / Sandor Bodo] © Sandor Bodo PROVIDENCE, RI 10/16/20 Anita Bruno speaks as Black Lives Matter Rhode Island holds a press conference at a parking lot on Broad Street to discuss recent violence in the city. [The Providence Journal / Sandor Bodo]

Leaders proposed the buyback initiative in response to a deadly series of shootings in August, but Providence Council members and community activists say they question the merits of such programs as tools for mitigating violence.

"In the studies that have come out, what is said is that the guns that are returned or are bought back are not guns that are used in homicide or suicidal incidents," LaFortune said. "If we really want to reduce the violence within our communities, what we really need to do is prioritize marginalized communities."

Organizers with Black Lives Matter Rhode Island said they want to see Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza focus more attention on creating education and job training programs for youth, re-opening community centers and investing in job opportunities in majority-Black neighborhoods.

"I just think that we need to not focus on anything with guns," Brother Gary Dantzler, a leader with the organization, said during a press conference Friday on Broad Street, which has become an epicenter of poverty and crime in the city. "We need to focus on education and job training. We need places where these kids can go and get an education so they don't have to be on the streets."

In a statement, Elorza said that the coronavirus pandemic has undermined many of the city's efforts around fostering community policing and building holistic supports for city youth.

"Our approach will continue to emphasize both immediate responses to interrupting the cycle of violence and long-term solutions that provide hope and support to our youth," his statement says. "That's why I am focused on keeping as many guns off the streets as possible; enhancing police-community relations; continuing years of investments in education and holistic supports; and using this unique moment to address structural racism in our society."

Keith Taylor, an adjunct assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, said it's difficult to evaluate the outcome of a gun buyback program because it's impossible for the authorities to know if any collected guns would have eventually been used in the commission of a crime.

"Ultimately, I think that because you can't really show the effectiveness of gun buyback programs, their utility may be very limited because you're trying to measure an unknown," said Taylor, who is also a retired sergeant with the New York City Police Department.

However, tracing collected guns provides authorities with a way to measure the success of their programs and can potentially assist them in investigating unsolved crimes, he said.

"I think that's a good use of those resources to tie those guns into any outstanding crimes that have occurred, both in Providence or in other places," Taylor said.

The problem, experts say, is that without a promise of amnesty, it's possible that fewer people will turn their guns into law enforcement, especially those that came by their weapons illegally.

"If we want them to be the ones to turn in the guns, we have to gain their trust as the town or the police department," said Eric Bronson, dean of the School of Justice Studies at Roger Williams University.

Bronson said that while gun buybacks can have an impact on taking guns off the street in the short term, a new supply of guns will usually appear in the area eventually.

Dropping the promise of amnesty from Providence and Central Falls gun buyback caused One Gun Gone, an organization run by Scott Lapham that repurposes collected guns into artwork to raise awareness about gun violence, to pull its support from the program, according to Paré. The organization had originally pledged $10,000 to help pay for the program.

"This is a rule change we were not anticipating," reads a post on One Gun Gone's Instagram page. "This Ballistics Testing will still be untraceable to individuals. This is a change from what we promoted. And we don't feel that we have the time to properly message this to our community members. We support the Gun Buy Back & regret that we will not be apart (sic) of this one."

Paré said that Providence and Central Falls still have gift cards leftover from a previous gun buyback program, as well as other funding, including $25,000 from the foundation of Malcom Chace, a late Rhode Island philanthropist and businessman.

Participants can turn in their guns on Saturday between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. at two locations — the Knights of Columbus at 20 Claremont St. in Central Falls and the DaVinci Center at 470 Charles St. in Providence.

Paré said any guns that are found to be tied to a crime will be sent to the police in the jurisdiction where the crime was committed. Those found to have been stolen from a lawful owner will be returned, and all others will be destroyed, he said.

Ward 14 City Councilman David Salvatore, one of the sponsors of the City Council's resolution, said that while it may be unlikely that a gun used in one of Providence's unsolved murders will be turned in on Saturday, the authorities should still do everything in their power to seek the truth.

"We owe it to the families and the loved ones of every victim of gun violence in this city that we provide the police department with the resources that are necessary to crack these cases," he said.

mlist@providencejournal.com

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On Twitter: @madeleine_list

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