A year after murder by gunfire spiked 66 percent in Boston, the city is on pace for an equally deadly 2011 as weapons imported from states with relaxed gun laws continue to wind up on local streets.
Through Sept. 18, there have been 36 deadly shootings in Boston this year, only one fewer than at the same time last year, when the final tally was 58. There were 35 fatal shootings in all of 2009.
Shootings throughout the city in which a victim was hit but did not die also remain high. A total of 162 people have been wounded in shootings through Sept. 18, one more victim than on the same date a year ago.
While the number of individuals arrested with illegal firearms has fallen 12 percent this year, compared to the same nine-month period in 2010, a recent arrest illustrates how some of the guns end up in the hands of criminals in Boston.
A .45-caliber Taurus Millennium seized during an Aug. 2 drug bust in Dorchester was the third recovered by Boston Police from a batch of 18 such weapons reportedly funneled to Boston via illegal straw purchases in Georgia. A pair of convicted felons bought the weapons, which are known to be preferred by gang members for their deadly-powerful punch yet small size, in Georgia in 2009 using “straws,” in this case two female accomplices with clean records.
The first of the 18 Taurus guns was seized in Boston in May 2009 — seven weeks after it had been purchased in Georgia — following its use in a city shooting. The second Taurus was seized during a gang-related investigation several months later, in September 2009.
According to a search warrant from the most recent recovery in August, the Boston Police Drug Control Unit began investigating 30-year-old Shawn J. Young in April, after a confidential informant reported that Young, a 6-foot-2, 270-pound bouncer at McFadden Pub who goes by the street name “Fat Boy,” was selling crack cocaine from his home on Topliff Street, a side street lined with three-decker homes on the slope of Meetinghouse Hill. Working with the Drug Control Unit, the informant made five drug purchases from Young between April and July, all under police surveillance.
Police executed the warrant on Aug. 2 and arrested Young, who has previous convictions for firearm possession and drug dealing. Among the contraband was the Taurus Millennium handgun, which was loaded with 10 rounds.
On Sept. 8, Young was indicted on a federal charge of illegal firearm possession, which carries a maximum 10-year prison sentence, and is now in the custody of the US Marshal’s office.
Illegal possession cases like Young’s and gun violence in general are highly concentrated in local neighborhoods, as Watchdog New England and the Dorchester Reporter reported last December. So far this year, 75 percent of the city’s shootings — including murders and non-fatal incidents — took place in the three police districts that cover Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan. The alarming number is no aberration. In every year from 2004 to 2010, no less than 68 percent of Boston shootings occurred in those three neighborhoods. The seven-year average was 76 percent.
In prosecuting gun- and gang-related cases, state and federal law enforcement officials meet weekly to decide which ones merit transfer to federal court, said Jake Wark, spokesman for the Suffolk District Attorney’s office.
“The decision is made on the facts of the case, the defendant’s record, and the relevant laws,” Wark said. “In some respects, Massachusetts gun statutes can be stricter than federal laws, and in others the federal prosecutors are able to obtain harsher sentences.”
In the Young case, the serial number on his gun matched that of a weapon purchased by Erron Denise Love-Morgan on April 26, 2009, at a gun show in Norcross, Ga. Love-Morgan and another woman, Casita Qwanet Washington, acted as straws for felons Anthony Vincent Cartman and Tchaka Jamal Shields, buying 18 Taurus firearms on their behalf over a two-month period, according to an indictment handed down last December by a federal grand jury in Atlanta.
It is illegal to buy a weapon for someone else to conceal the identity of its true purchaser. Cartman and Shields had criminal records that prohibited them from buying guns, so they recruited Love-Morgan and Washington to serve as proxies, according to the indictment.
How the 18 handguns made their way from Atlanta to Boston could not be determined. But Shields, one of the four indicted in the straw purchase scheme, was born in Boston and has long-standing ties to the city. During a detention hearing in January, Shields’s mother testified that her son has an aunt and some cousins in Boston and that he travels here with some regularity.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Plummer, who is prosecuting the case in Atlanta, said in a recent interview with the Reporter that he could not provide a direct answer to a question about whether Shields brought the guns to Boston himself or sold the weapons to middle men who took them north. But Plummer said “read between the lines” when asked about Shields’s connections to the city and the short period of time it took for one of the guns to find its way to Boston.
Shields’s attorney, L. Burton Finlayson, declined to comment on his client’s ties to Boston and whether or not he played a role in transporting the guns to Boston.
Shields pleaded guilty in June to the federal charge of firearms trafficking. He is being held at a detention facility in Lovejoy, Ga. and faces up to five years in prison. The two women also pleaded guilty and are free on bond. Cartman, who had been on the run, was apprehended in the Bronx in August.
It is unclear if Shields and Cartman have any relationship with Young or how many times the gun found at Young’s house changed hands before ending up in his. Young’s attorney, public defender Stylianus Sinnis, could not be reached for comment.
As Watchdog New England and the Reporter reported in January, investigators say most guns used by criminals in Boston are purchased originally in Georgia, New Hampshire, Maine, or Vermont, four of the 33 states nationwide that do not require full background checks. Massachusetts does.
A 2000 study by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives showed straw purchases are a popular way for people like Shields and Cartman — whose status as felons would have blocked attempts by them to buy guns in person, even in Georgia — to evade gun control laws.
The relative ease of obtaining weapons has contributed to a rise in violent crime in Boston over the last two years, reversing the positive trend of 2009. That year, there were 223 shootings in which a victim was wounded or killed, 28 percent fewer than in 2008.
But shootings crept back upward last year, to 258 — a 16 percent increase — and the city is on target to match the shooting total this year. The 198 shootings through Sept. 18 are as many as there were at the same time in 2010.
Callum Borchers is a reporting co-op with Watchdog New England, the Initiative for Investigative Reporting at Northeastern University, which has teamed with the Dorchester Reporter to conduct in-depth reports on neighborhoods issues. The Initiative is supported by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Callum Borchers may be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org Pat Tarantino of the Dorchester Reporter contributed to this report.