Newtown spotlight overshadows street violence

As lawmakers continue to draft legislation in response to the December shooting in Newtown, state officials have urged that such reform not overlook street violence in New Haven, particularly among youth and minorities.

A March 6 Quinnipiac poll found that 68 percent of Connecticut respondents support expanding the state ban on assault weapon sales in the wake of Newtown; however, the proposed legislation is not solely focused on preventing large-scale shootouts. Nancy Lefkowitz, co-founder of gun violence advocacy group March for Change, said that Newtown represented a “tipping point that opened people’s eyes to the violence cities face every day,” citing a high incidence of violence in Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport. Over 85 of New Haven deaths from assault since 2007 were caused by handguns, occurring on public streets, sidewalks and parking lots, and homicides have doubled since 2005, according to the New Haven Health Equity Alliance.

“If we do not address the type of gun violence that we see on a regular basis as we look at a response to Sandy Hook, then we will have failed to properly address the issue of gun violence in Connecticut,” Democratic State Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield said at a Feb. 28 press conference in response to legislation proposed by Gov. Dannel Malloy’s Gun Violence Prevention Task Force.

The concentration of violence in New Haven correlates with the city poverty base and high school dropout rates, according to the United Way of Greater New Haven. In fact, a February DataHaven report indicates that one-third of city neighborhoods, including Newhallville and Fair Haven, have been the scene of nearly 85 percent of homicides from 2007 to 2011.

There is also a higher incidence of street violence among minorities and youth: The DataHaven report indicates that, in areas with more than two homicides from 2007 to 2011, 35 percent of residents are Hispanic and 46 percent are African-American, while 9 percent are teenagers ages 16 to 19 not enrolled in school.

Mark Abraham, executive director of DataHaven, said given that New Haven violence is 10 times higher than the state average in a handful of neighborhoods, the city’s approach to prevention is insufficient. He added that creating more livable communities — with parks, community gardens, public plazas and proper surveillance — can cause dramatic reductions in crime.

But Jack Healy, president and CEO of United Way of Greater New Haven, said that the city is doing all that it can with the resources that are allotted to it. He cited the city’s Street Outreach Worker Program, which attempts to intervene in teen gun violence by engaging at-risk and high-risk youth to improve individual and neighborhood well-being.

He added that Connecticut cities are challenged to come up with resources for support services, heavily relying on continuous state and federal support and the residential tax base for growth. Ward 5 Alderman Jorge Perez said he is most concerned that Malloy’s budget proposal will result in cuts to city education funding, which can lift youth out of poverty and therefore combat urban violence.

“The United Way tries to even the odds so that kids have alternatives to the urban violence and a way of having aspirations in their life beyond the street,” Healy said, citing the organization’s funding focus on youth violence prevention in schools.

Though Perez said there is no “silver bullet” to eliminate community violence, Lefkowitz said she is encouraged by how urban and suburban communities are collaborating on gun legislation that would combat street violence. Ron Pinciaro, executive director of advocacy group Connecticut Against Gun Violence, said in a Feb. 26 release that registration of handguns with annual renewal and the stipulation that the law-abiding purchaser is still in possession of the handgun will prevent illegal trafficking — a “major contributing factor to urban crime.”

“The Gun Violence Prevention Task Force needs to be mindful of the problem of urban gun violence as they consider additions to the proposals made by Gov. Malloy,” Pinciaro said. “Those proposals are a good starting point, but more can be done to help our urban communities.”

Roughly 90 percent of homicide victims in Connecticut in 2011 were African-American or Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

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