The toll of illegal firearms

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For those who suffer gun violence, even one illegal firearm can be too many.

“When somebody has an illegal firearm, it’s usually utilized in the commission of a crime at some point,” says Deputy Chief Mark Mura, who heads the Rochester Police Department’s community affairs bureau. 

Despite New York’s strong legal restrictions on gun ownership, sales and transfers, illegal firearms continue to appear in Monroe County during criminal investigations and at crime scenes. From 2009 to 2018, RPD confiscated 4,466 so-called “crime guns”—firearms that were used in or connected to crimes. RPD  investigated 1,837 shootings from 2009 to 2018, 223 of which were fatal. 

“Ninety-nine percent of the time, it’s an illegal firearm,” Mura says.

Add the illegal guns that the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, the county’s nine town and village departments and the State Police have collected over those years, and the total confiscated locally could be much higher. According to a 2016 report from the New York attorney general, law enforcement agencies confiscated 4,536 crime guns in Monroe County from 2010 to 2015. 

Rochester has the highest percentage of low time-to-crime guns.
Source: New York State Office of the Attorney General 

Tracing origins

National data on the origins of illegal guns is difficult to come by. Federal law prevents the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives—the best source for data on firearms traces—from releasing that information under most circumstances, except for criminal investigations. 

Instead, states, municipalities, law enforcement agencies and academics have had to conduct their own studies of the problem. The attorney general’s research revealed that 74 percent of the 52,915 crime guns that law enforcement agencies recovered in the state from 2010 to 2015 traveled here from beyond its borders—well above the national average. 

More than half, or 56 percent, of the crime guns collected in Monroe County’s crime guns originated in New York. 

“It’s very likely that there’s a substantial proportion just coming from the county,” says Irshad Altheimer, the director of RIT’s Center for Public Safety Initiatives. Altheimer also heads CPSI’s Community Engagement to Reduce Victimization program.

Mura points out that illegal firearms can come from a number of local sources. 

“It can be anything, from a burglary at a city residence to somebody leaving a handgun out in a car,” he says. “You’ve seen the news stories about gun shops out in the county that have been broken into, and dozens of guns were taken.”

Burglars broke into a Parma gun shop twice last August and left with 94 guns, the majority of them pistols. Most of the weapons ended up on Rochester’s streets. The shop has been burglarized seven times since 2007. 

Financial toll

Shootings, gunshot wounds, and deaths by firearm affect communities in many different ways. The U.S. Senate recently researched the economic effects of gun violence across the country and found that the scourge cost New York a total of $5.6 billion annually, or $286 per resident. That includes $1.7 billion in lost income for those affected, $12 million to their employers and $203 million in expenditures by law enforcement agencies and the courts. The cost of treating gun violence victims came to $106 million. Indirect costs including reduced quality of life due to pain and suffering account for the rest of the total.

Look beyond New York, and the story is much the same. Mother Jones reported in 2015 that the financial toll of gun violence in the United States exceeded $229 billion just in 2012, including $8.6 billion in direct costs and $221 billion in indirect costs. 

Police investigations, criminal trials, housing those convicted in jails or prisons and other government services accounted for $5.2 billion of the direct costs. Homicides generated huge expenses—the average cost of dealing with each crime came to nearly $400,000, and there were 32 that year. The financial burdens of providing medical care and other treatments to gun violence victims and their survivors accounted for the rest. Approximately 87 percent of all expenses that directly resulted from gun violence fell on taxpayers’ shoulders.

Rochester’s health care systems couldn’t provide the baseline cost of medical treatment for a gunshot wound—the size of the bill varies with the patient’s condition and the severity of the injury. An examination of the costs of treating firearms injuries in the U.S. from 2006 to 2014 found that the per-person mean charges for emergency department and inpatient treatment were $5,254 and $95,887, respectively. The annual cost of both forms of treatment combined came to approximately $2.8 billion.

According to Mother Jones’ research, the indirect costs of gun violence amounted to at least another $221 billion. Victims’ lost wages and the effects on their employers of their productivity on the job amounted to $49 billion of that amount. The rest came from the impact of each shooting upon the quality of life of the victim and the community in which it occurred, along with other factors

Community impact

Kayla Macano, executive director of the Gun Involved Violence Elimination initiative in Monroe County, has seen how shootings affect those living in some parts of Rochester.

“People are very scared for themselves and their children,” Macano says. “Even if you’re not the target, you’re still worried about stray bullets.”

Macano says some city residents have told her that out of fear of gun violence, they limit the time they spend outside their homes.

Gun violence can prompt another reaction from those afraid of it.

“There’s criminal justice research, for instance, that finds that young kids … that carry guns, they carry them for protection,” Altheimer says. “Kids are more likely to carry guns for protection in areas that there’s high gun violence.”

Those who carry guns are sometimes more prone to using them, worsening the problem. 

Tackling the problem

GIVE is state Division of Criminal Justice program that was created in 2014 to help 17 New York counties across the state reduce gun violence. Taken together, those counties account for 80 percent of the state’s violent crime. The program allows the law enforcement agencies and other organizations that serve those counties to use evidence-based strategies to combat gun crime.

“Evidence-based strategies are efforts that have been implemented and tested and evaluated in several sites, and shown to be effective,” Macano says.

Eleven Monroe County agencies and organizations partner in the GIVE program, including RPD, the sheriff’s and district attorney’s offices and the city of Rochester’s Pathways to Peace program. Altogether, they use 16 different strategies in a multipronged approach to curbing gun violence. 

Of the $10.4 million in state funds that Monroe County has received for GIVE since the program began, slightly more than $3.4 million has gone to RPD. That money has allowed the department to engage in several efforts to reduce local gun crime. 

To begin with, the department has helped create a list of those in the area who might possess or use illegal firearms, called “chronic firearms offenders.” Developed from information gained through arrests, field and gang intelligence, shooting victim data and other sources, the list is regularly updated. With that in hand, local law enforcement agencies have been able to focus more attention and resources upon CFOs.

“We focus on the top offenders who are criminally active,” says Deputy Chief of Operations Joe Morabito, who heads RPD’s GIVE operation. 

CFOs get a bit of extra attention on the street.

“If they’re involved in drug activity, which is not uncommon for a lot of our violent people having the drug nexus, they might get attention from our narcotics unit,” Morabito explains.

County probation officers also keep an eye on CFOs.

“If they have search conditions as part of their probation, and we believe they may be involved in gun violence or possessing a gun, probation might go in to search their residence,” Morabito says.

When a dispute between youths threatens to boil over into violence, RPD can call upon Pathways to Peace to defuse the situation. Pathways was created to help Rochester youth who are in danger of committing crimes, joining gangs or engaging in violence go in more positive directions. 

“We get Pathways folks to go out and try and have an intervention with everybody, meet with family members,” Morabito explains. “They also do a lot of preemptive stuff.”

Morabito couldn’t produce evidence of GIVE’s effects on the violence that occurs in Monroe County, but he says that the program “has been working pretty well” statewide.

“In our five-year-average, we’ve seen some good reductions in … targeted areas,” he explains.

Caring for victims

Willie Lightfoot, vice president of Rochester City Council and a longtime supporter of efforts to combat gun violence, asserts that RPD isn’t doing enough to stop it, or to aid those suffering from its effects. 

Willie Lightfoot

“We deal with the fact of the shootings and the homicides that are happening, but we’re not really dealing with the effects of it, the trauma that comes as a result,” he says.

Lightfoot says he is working with RPD to create teams of clinicians who would join officers at the scenes of shootings. Once there, they would help the victims, their survivors or those living in the area deal with the trauma from the event in a healthy manner. He hopes to have the first team formed and operating by June.

The Center for Public Safety Initiatives—a collaborative effort of Rochester Institute of Technology’s Department of Criminal Justice, the city of Rochester, and the criminal justice agencies of Greater Rochester—does work directly with victims of violent crimes. 

Sabrina LaMar

“CERV is a research plan to reduce retaliatory violence through a hospital-based intervention program,” says Sabrina LaMar, the program’s project coordinator. 

Four organizations with strong ties to communities in Rochester—Pathways to Peace, Rise Up Rochester, Action for a Better Community’s Save Our Youth program and United Christian Leadership Ministries—work together to help CERV accomplish its mission. The pilot program began operating on June 1 with a $195,000 New York State Health Foundation grant. 

CERV serves 18- to 30-year-olds who have been shot or stabbed, or received some type of blunt-force trauma. The incident must have occurred in the 14609, 14605 or 14621 ZIP codes, which are north or east of downtown Rochester. They must also seek treatment at Rochester General Hospital, which is working with the program. 

Here’s how CERV works. When someone who has been shot, stabbed or suffered blunt-force trauma comes into RGH for treatment, a clinician, with the victim’s permission, contacts Pathways. Someone from that program comes to the hospital, assesses the risk that the victim might retaliate for the injury, and sends the results to LaMar.

“If the victim is CERV-eligible, I would dispatch a community partner, like Rise Up Rochester or Save Our Youth, to put together a safety plan for the victim,” LaMar explains. “It helps to have the plan in place before they leave the hospital.”

The safety plan could include a number of measures. CERV might put the victim in a hotel for a few days to cool off, or even pay for a trip to the home of out-of-town relatives. The program could also pay for such things as food for a hungry victim, and connect the victim with social services and other sources of immediate and long-term assistance. That could include hooking the victim up with organizations that would help him or her meet long-term goals, such as obtaining a job.

“Part of their safety plan should ensure that they are connected with resources to help them continue on,” LaMar says.

CERV has conducted 16 risk assessments and taken on 12 cases, seven of which involved firearms. To date, LaMar says none of the victims that CERV has worked with have retaliated against those who injured them.

Robert Duffy, president and CEO of Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce and former RPD chief, praises the efforts of programs like CERV, but says that gun violence really doesn’t affect businesses’ decisions to move to or leave Rochester.

“We have fights and we have stabbings and different acts, but so does every city across our country,” Duffy says. “The biggest challenge coming to the city often is parking.”

Duffy also points out that Rochester’s crime rate has fallen in recent years. In 2018, it reached a 39-year low.

Most city residents would welcome such news, but it doesn’t drown out the sound of gunfire.

Mike Costanza is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer.

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