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Billboards go, but message on gun violence stays

Like many in his line of work — which is violence prevention — Jorge Martinez has a special affinity for the stark, antihandgun billboard that has been a fixture of the city's skyline for two decades.

It's not that Martinez sees the sign, on the Massachusetts Turnpike near Fenway Park, on a daily basis. The organization he runs, Project Right, is based in Grove Hall. But he firmly believes the sign helps bring the reality of violence to the quarter of a million of suburbanites who pass it every day on their way in and out of the city.

"The way we think about violence, we think about it as something that only happens in an urban community, as something that only happens to brown and black people," Martinez said. "Folks coming into Boston and leaving Boston have an opportunity to see this message of gun violence and it calls them to help us deal with the issue. Those signs to me kept the issue of gun violence and those [victims] alive with people who don't look like you and me."

The billboard is likely to go away soon, because the building it is affixed to has been sold to Fenway Sports Group (whose principal owner, John W. Henry, also owns The Boston Globe). Martinez reacted with shock and alarm to the news Thursday that most of the three dozen billboards intended to replace it were being taken down, barely a day after they went up — apparently in response to an organized and vociferous protest from gun rights activists.

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"All the violence that we're having and they have the power to do that?" Martinez exclaimed. "Wow. Those people are not being impacted by the gun violence."

Martinez said he has seen first-hand the impact such a visual reminder can have on a community.

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On Thursday, Clear Channel announced that it was taking down the 25 billboards it has agreed to post. They contained a simple, relatively benign message: "We're not anti gun. We're pro-life. Massachusetts gun laws save lives." They were posted on billboards from Boston to Worcester. Briefly.

They were the brainchild of John Rosenthal, the founder of Stop Handgun Violence. He posted the original billboard when he and a partner bought a parking garage in 1992 and he realized how many people drove past it every day. By then, he had become passionate about the need to regulate handguns.

Rosenthal sold the building two years ago, under terms that allowed the billboard to temporarily remain. He expects the current owners of the garage to eventually take it down.

Rosenthal describes himself as a lifelong gun owner, who counts skeet-shooting as a hobby. But he has devoted considerable time, energy, and money to fighting the gun industry. In his perfectly defensible view, the billboards he had planned to display fell victim to the same cowardice and intimidation that swallows up gun control measures in Washington.

"Unlike toy guns and teddy bears that have a ton of regulations, the real guns that result in 83 deaths a day have no regulation," Rosenthal said Thursday.

Citing the state's ban on assault weapons and large-capacity magazines, Rosenthal sees Massachusetts as a model for how to regulate guns, without banning them. "We are the NRA's worst nightmare and the billboard said it straight and was a huge threat," Rosenthal said. "Massachusetts gun laws save lives. That's what the NRA and GOAL are afraid of."

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In fact, the Gun Owners' Action League of Massachusetts, which has occasionally supported gun safety legislation, called for either the removal of the billboards, or space to post their own message. Its executive director, Jim Wallace, called the ads "inaccurate and misleading." For now, Wallace has won.

GOAL's victory is a major loss for Massachusetts. But Rosenthal has never been one to go quietly, and it's hard to imagine him backing down now. "No wonder we have a gun violence epidemic in our country," he said with disgust. "Look what happened to our billboard."


Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.