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Guns and Violence: What Answers?

Forum Calls for Reason, Responsibility, Research

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Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis spoke at the UMass Lowell Day Without Violence forum, a panel discussion on “Guns and Violence.”

By Sandra Seitz

In the last six years, he’s been to 400 homicide scenes. He’s stepped over bodies, talked to devastated families and watched as young perpetrators are sent to prison for life. He says it’s “a losing proposition” for everyone.

He is Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis, former police chief in Lowell, and he participated in the recent UMass Lowell Day Without Violence forum, a panel discussion on “Guns and Violence.” 

Keynote speaker Craig R. Whitney, former editor at the New York Times and author of “Living with Guns: A Liberal’s Case for the Second Amendment,” was joined by Davis and psychologist Cathy Levey, Ph.D., lecturer in criminal justice at UMass Lowell and veteran of 20 years as mental health director of the Connecticut prison system. 

Whitney, who had been offended by the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling on Second Amendment rights in a District of Columbia case, decided to research the full history behind the amendment.

“My research led me to a surprising conclusion — that there is a personal right to own guns,” Whitney said. “It derives from a common-law right that predates the Constitution, so the Court was correct. Liberals could start by acknowledging that.” His research also showed that the right was connected with civic duty and that, historically, guns were “registered” by each town’s militia.

“The Second Amendment puts no ban on regulation for common safety,” he said. Over the past decade, about 30,000 people per year have died by gunshot in the United States. Nearly two-thirds of those are suicides; the others are mostly homicides and a few accidental shootings. 

Compared to other industrialized nations, the numbers are remarkable. American teens are no more prone to depression than other nationalities, but have many more suicides. In all of the United Kingdom, homicides are less than 20 per year.

“Gun violence in city neighborhoods is mostly invisible. It’s not real to people in the suburbs,” said Davis, describing a 30-year study finding that 80 percent of Boston shooting incidents had occurred in just three neighborhoods, among young people of color, who were often both shooters and victims.

“This is the scourge of our society — that we are not paying attention to what is played out in cities among kids of color,” said Davis. “There is no moral outrage. Looking back, in history, our nation will be held accountable as to why we did nothing about it.”

Over recent decades, the National Rifle Association (NRA) has become more extreme in its positions, said Whitney.

“The NRA puts more emphasis on guns for personal defense and argues that more guns equal less crime,” rather than for civic duty and preparedness, said Whitney. “In 1996, they convinced Congress to ban all research into the causes and circumstances of shooting deaths.” The ban was lifted in January by President Obama.

Davis is a strong advocate for research, saying, “I don’t have all the answers, but the answers are out there.” As the rhetoric about guns has become more heated, the policing methods have improved dramatically with more information and research, moving from "go out and arrest someone" to policies of prevention and intervention. 

With young students from Lowell High School and Greater Lowell Technical High School joining the University audience, questions touched on the personal.

Did you ever have to shoot someone and how did you feel? Davis was asked. The answer was no, but “I’ve been shot at, mostly by other officers in a shootout and I had to get out of the way,” said Davis. “No one feels good after shooting someone. My officers have lots of psychological issues after a shooting.”

What do you feel when you see the victim, some kind of personal connection? another student asked. “You have to tell the parents and families, who are devastated,” said Davis. “After 400, though, what I mostly feel is the loss of potential, the great waste of these young lives.”