One Man's History of Gun Buyback in Boston
March 21, 2014
Michael Patrick MacDonald recently spoke out on the need for a new gun buyback program in Boston. Raised in the crime-ridden Old Colony projects of South Boston during the Whitey Bulger era, MacDonald is no stranger to the toll gun violence can take on a neighborhood, or a family: his older brother, Frank, was fatally shot in a botched robbery, and his younger brother, Steven, was wrongly convicted of murder for the death of Tommy Viens, a friend who accidentally shot himself while playing with a gun. In the following excerpt adapted from All Souls: A Family Story from Southie, MacDonald revisits the beginnings and overwhelming success of the gun buyback program he helped organize in the wake of his family's personal tragedy, and the need for more like it in poor, inner-city neighborhoods like the Southie of his youth.
After I’d left Old Colony, I rested a few hours a night on friends’ couches around Boston, secretly eating at soup kitchens, and spending my days and nights investigating for Steven’s appeal and getting involved in efforts against violence and police abuse, especially in Roxbury, where things had only gotten worse since the Stuart case. At the same time I was trying to finish my studies at UMass, and taking extra courses in juvenile justice. I’d found Citizens for Safety only after many liberal organizations in Boston had shut the door in my face, since my story didn’t fit with their upper-middle-class white plans to organize around civil rights issues. While Steven was locked up in the Department of Youth Services, I called every organization in town that talked about violence and the police department’s reactionary ways in the black and Latino neighborhoods. One guy listened for fifteen minutes while I told him about the abuses in Steven’s case, until I said “South Boston.” Then he asked me if Steven was, by chance, a minority who’d moved into South Boston. “Nope.” “Well, unless he’s a minority or gay, I’m afraid there’s not much we can do.” That was the end of that conversation.
I finally decided to call just one last place to volunteer. I didn’t like the name Citizens for Safety. It sounded wimpy and suburban, and I was looking for a revolution to put all my rage into. But Kathie and Muadi were cool, and I soon figured out the name was a front; they were ready for battle.
We were a good team, Kathie, Muadi, and I. We ran around the city, strategizing while riding on buses and pulling together groups in Roxbury for meetings with the police to air complaints from kids who were being detained and harassed and sometimes called “nigger” by cops. Residents spoke out about specific officers they felt were only adding to the violence of the streets. Just like in Southie, I thought to myself as we passed on a bus through the dark boulevards of Roxbury’s Dudley Square, where I’d always been told never to set foot.
I still hated the cops for what they’d done to my little brother. I was working with many black people now, and even some of the liberal types who ran organizations. But the cops? Never. The strange thing was, whenever I went to meetings with activists from around the city, as much as I related to the black residents, there were still no people from the same place I was. The cops attending those meetings were the closest thing to my Southie neighbors, with shamrocks pinned to their lapels, heavy Boston accents, and stories about growing up tough. I found out that some had become cops because of their experiences with crime and violence. I decided to give them a chance in my own head.
We ended up working with the Boston Police Department when we started to organize a gun buyback program in the city. We had no choice in order to collect turned-in guns legally. The police had already committed themselves to “a new era of community policing,” which activists like us had been pushing for. We wanted to make sure their “community policing” was more than just another press conference catch phrase to shut people up after the Stuart case debacle. So we pushed the gun buyback as a way they could prove they meant what they were saying. We held our own press conference, announcing our plans to collect working firearms in exchange for money, amnesty, and anonymity. We knew the cops would jump on board; and they did, once we started getting thousands of dollars in private donations for buying back guns. Eventually, as thousands of guns were handed over, the cops wanted all the credit. We didn’t care as long as the deadly weapons were coming in.
In the summer of 1996, Citizens for Safety was getting ready to organize its fourth annual gun buyback program. One day I was walking by the courthouse on Broadway, reading about Brian Havlin, a neighbor who’d been ambushed in the Old Harbor Project and shot nine times after an argument. As I passed the courthouse, I saw a redheaded woman pacing. I knew that face. She looked like Ma after losing Frankie, with anger and sadness welling up in tears that refused to fall while her daughters stood by her. “Are you Mrs. Havlin?” I asked.
Kathy Havlin started coming to our South Boston Vigil Group meetings along with her three daughters. She was angry about the hypocrisy of our politicians, who’d only sent her their sympathies once they found out how well thought of Brian was and that his murderer was a junkie no one liked anyway. She also vented her fury at the priest who’d come to her project apartment, discovered she was a single mother, and looked around the room asking, “Do you work or anything?” She was working on bringing the murderer to justice and wanted to shut down the bar where the fight had started. She also wanted to do something about guns on the street. Before long she was meeting me at the end of her long work day, showing up on Geneva Ave. in the heart of black Dorchester, to hand out gun buyback fliers with Tina Chery, who’d lost her son Louis to gunfire on that street. Kathy walked up to tough-looking black teens hanging out on corners and pleaded with them to spread the word about the buyback.
By 1996, our buyback program was led by survivors from every neighborhood in Boston. Terri Titcomb, whose son Albie had recently been shot in Charlestown over a fifty-dollar drug debt, led the press conference, her back and shoulders buttressed by outstretched hands of all colors. She asked parents to turn in guns, teenagers to turn in guns, and legislators to make stricter laws on the gun industry.
That buyback, we took in fewer guns, and the Boston Police Department didn’t see any reason to continue the project. With their growing emphasis on “zero tolerance” policing and suppression tactics, the cops weren’t impressed by our multiracial mumbo jumbo. But as we’d found year after year, the tougher guns were coming in with each successive buyback. I had the buyback hotline in my apartment in Southie, so I knew where the guns were coming from, and they weren’t coming from little old widows, as the cops liked to say. I got directly involved in a number of turn-ins, one from a former gang member, another from a thirteen-year-old girl hiding a gun for her boyfriend until he got out of DYS, and one from a murder victim’s mother, who’d been hell-bent on revenge until she’d become one of the program’s spokespersons.
On the last day of the buyback, I received a call from a priest in Dorchester. A thirteen-year-old had given him a .357 Magnum to turn in. I told him where and how to turn it in, and hung up my last buyback call, having helped to destroy 2,901 guns. And I remembered Tommy Viens, the reason I got involved in the first place.
Michael Patrick MacDonald helped launch Boston’s successful gun-buyback program and is founder of the South Boston Vigil Group. He has won the American Book Award, a New England Literary Lights Award, and the Myers Center Outstanding Book Award administered by the Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights in North America. His second book, the highly acclaimed memoir Easter Rising, was published in 2006. He currently writes and speaks on topics ranging from race and class in America to trauma, healing, and social change and is an author in residence in Northeastern University’s Honors Program.