Almost half the illegal guns seized and traced in Boston last year came back to manufacturers and dealers in Massachusetts, a startlingly high ratio for a state known for its tough gun laws.
In 2013, Boston police seized 509 handguns, some used in homicides, others simply possessed illegally. Of those guns, police were able to trace 326 to their original point of retail sale. Forty-six percent of them were originally purchased legally in Massachusetts, said Anthony Braga, a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government who analyzed the data for the Boston Police Department.
“The part that is concerning to me is that we have really good gun laws here,” Braga told police and city officials from across New England gathered at Roxbury Community College Thursday. “I don't know if it’s a temporary blip or a trend, but it’s something that needs to be understood.”
Mayor Martin J. Walsh called the Regional Gun Trafficking Summit, a meeting of dozens of police chiefs, mayors, prosecutors, and administrators from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.
Walsh said he convened the summit as a jumping-off point for a long-term regional effort to reduce illegal gun trafficking.
“We’re going to leave with a plan that has concrete action steps,” Walsh said.
For years, the states north of Massachusetts — Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine — supplied a large number of the illegal guns found in Boston. Officials have said that looser restrictions in the northern states and in Southern states along the Interstate 95 corridor, such as Virginia and Georgia, made it easy for criminals in Boston to buy guns elsewhere that they typically would be unable to purchase in Massachusetts, where secondary gun sales must be reported to the state.
But Braga said his analysis suggests it is possible that criminals have been able to circumvent the state’s restrictions. In some cases, the offender involved in a gun crime was the original, and legal, buyer of the weapon, said Braga, who wondered if background checks are being conducted effectively.
Braga said he does not have a theory on why so many seized guns are coming from within the state. Between 2005 and 2006, about 26 percent of the guns seized and traced by Boston police came from Massachusetts, while nearly 41 percent of the handguns came from New Hampshire, Maine, and Southern states. In 2013, however, 36.5 percent of seized guns came from out of state.
Starting in June, Braga will oversee a study that will seek to understand how criminals, juveniles, and mentally ill people acquire illegal guns that land in Boston. He will work with the city’s Police Department, the US attorney’s office, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. But Braga said he also plans to interview known gang members and others with knowledge of street crime to find out how gun sales are conducted.
Walsh said the study will cost $214,000 and will be funded by donations from several nonprofits, including Everytown for Gun Safety, which until recently was known as Mayors Against Illegal Guns. That group was started by Walsh’s predecessor, Thomas M. Menino, and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Walsh made combatting violent crime in the city a central piece of his mayoral campaign. In February, after a 9-year-old boy was fatally shot by his 14-year-old brother with an illegally obtained gun, Walsh announced a gun buyback program. Officials said that 269 firearms have been handed over in exchange for $200 Visa gift cards. More than 100 of those guns were semiautomatic handguns, Police Commissioner William Evans said.
In addition, police have seized 179 guns so far this year, Walsh said.
“As quickly as we seize these guns, more flow into our cities and the violence continues,” he said.
Walsh called on those at the summit to support planning for a regional gun crime center that would act as a central location for tracing and analyzing guns linked to crimes. Planning for the center is still in the early stages, city officials said.
Walsh said he wanted police officials from other states to attend not just because of the gun trade, but also because guns are often exchanged for drugs that come from Boston.
“It’s a mutually destructive problem that demands a mutually constructive solution,” Walsh said.