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Michael Jonas | The Political Trail

Changing culture, not just tactics, on guns

Maybe the NRA was right.

The gun owners' group has been vilified for years by urban leaders and liberal policymakers for its slogan, "Guns don't kill people, people do."

But as the continuing toll of violence in Boston attests - most recently, the horrific slaying of 13-year-old Steve Odom, the unintended target of a fusillade of bullets let loose on his Dorchester street - it is not simply the easy access to guns that is behind the growing body count. It is also the shockingly everyday willingness to use them.

Toughening gun laws might be part of the solution. But so, too, is confronting the gang and gun culture that has glorified violence and has a firm foothold in neighborhoods where the mayhem is centered. When most teens in those neighborhoods know someone who has carried a gun or who has been shot by one, social norms are out of kilter to a point that only a new kind of culture war can reverse.

Odom, a well-behaved kid who played drums on Sundays at the church his father founded a year ago, was battling against the tide.

"Among young people what you find is that there are two competing cultures," says the Rev. Jeffrey Brown, a cofounder of Boston Ten Point Coalition. "On the one hand you have the culture that nurtures a Steven Odom. Then you have another that nurtures the perpetrator or perpetrators who killed him. The other one, that culture of violence, is out of control."

While the problem may be a crisis of values and social norms, that doesn't mean police are off the hook. In the 1990s, the success in reducing gang violence was directly related to the department's ability to reset the standard for acceptable behavior among the city's worst gangbangers.

The Operation Ceasefire program at the heart of the police work delivered a no-nonsense message that there was help available to those who want to turn their lives around - and a ton of bricks worth of law enforcement waiting for those who continue to wreak havoc on city streets.

New laws to stem the flow of guns into cities, as Mayor Tom Menino and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg have teamed up to push for, might also help.

But those on the front lines increasingly recognize that they are battling not just lax laws, but frayed moral codes. "We're allowing this negative subculture to desocialize our kids right under our noses," says Emmett Folgert, longtime director of the Dorchester Youth Collaborative.

For Brown and other leaders of the clergy-led Ten Point Coalition, which won national praise in the 1990s for its efforts to help quell youth violence in Boston, that recognition is prompting a retooling of the 10-point anticrime manifesto they first crafted more than a decade ago. The new focus areas have come straight from conversations with young people about what would make the biggest difference in turning things around.

"The number one point that they wanted us to add was a call for a cultural change," says Brown. "I remember a conversation I had with a young person when he said, 'That's it. That's what you've got to do.' "

"That's a tall order," Brown says he told the teen. "He said, 'You didn't ask me what was easy; you asked me what was necessary.' "

Brown is grappling with how to promote a new culture-focused message aimed at resetting social norms. "This is not about a solo act," he says. "This is about a choir, and we really need more of a chorus."

The city's new SharpShooter detection system, which can instantly pinpoint the location of gunshots, was credited last week with helping police for the first time arrest an alleged shooter. But even if it had worked a week earlier to help catch his killer, it would not have saved Steve Odom.

The kind of change that will stop shootings from happening in the first place is, as Jeff Brown says, a taller order. But the most necessary work isn't always the easiest.

Michael Jonas can be reached at

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