Gun seizures reach record high

Early Saturday morning, two men shot 20 rounds from an AK-47 through a second-story window on Fair Haven’s Grand Avenue, wounding three residents. Just hours earlier on that same avenue, a 17-year-old girl was shot by a handgun through the right calf.

And just the day before, city officials heralded their efforts to curb gun violence, which has crescendoed since the new year and is alarming community groups. New Haven Police Chief James Lewis said that while he is pleased with last year’s increase in firearm confiscations — a record 299, up 13.8 percent from 2008 — he is troubled that 39 percent of the people whose weapons were seized were ex-felons and 40 percent were younger than 22 years old. While he said there is still much to be done to reduce gun violence in the city, Lewis defended the strategy of firearm confiscations, which he said has been successful in reducing crime in the city.

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“I think its clear,” he said of the confiscations’ effectiveness. “We had 11 percent fewer shootings last year.”

The press conference came three days after 45 police officers raided 100 locations in the Dixwell and Newhallville neighborhoods to gather information about a recent string of seven unsolved murders. All of the victims were black males, most had criminal records, and most were shot execution-style in the head. The raids netted nine arrests but no suspects.

Despite the recent spree, the city’s murder rate dropped 48 percent in 2009, and the number of shootings declined 11 percent, Lewis said. The confiscations have continued into the new year: In the first 15 days of 2010, the NHPD seized 13 guns.

Standing with Mayor John DeStefano Jr. on Friday before an array of seized firearms (including a variety of handguns, a sniper rifle with a scope, a sawed-off shotgun and several assault rifles), Lewis credited increased traffic stops by police and cooperation from the community for the record number of seizures. But he added that teenagers and ex-felons are obtaining guns because they are not receiving enough help and attention from the community. They then get caught up in crime, he said, and go to prison. Once they are out, they do not receive adequate resources to resume normal lives, he said.

DeStefano said he remains committed to working with the private sector to support and develop mentoring programs that can keep children personally engaged with the community.

“We will work with the private sector and do anything possible to make sure kids are not affected [by the budget cuts],” DeStefano said.

DeStefano said he is also committed to keeping afloat programs that help ex-felons to avoid returning to prison.

Ward 22 Alderman Greg Morehead, whose Dixwell neighborhood has been the site of several of the recent murders, said strengthening youth programs is critical to reducing violence. He said he is helping to teach a mentoring program and is encouraging all residents to do the same.

“People say, ‘No, I don’t have time,’ but they should always have time for their neighbors and for fighting criminal behavior “by whatever means possible.” He said such programs will be threatened as the state cuts back on funding to battle a budget deficit that could reach $3.5 billion by 2011. The city is already struggling to pay for the support programs: The only funding for prisoner re-entry initiatives comes from the federal government and the mentoring programs are funded with drug money the community,” Morehead said.

Lewis is stepping down at the end of the month and is helping to select his successor.

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