Cities to Track Guns In Youth-Crime Fight

Teen crimes may be flourishing elsewhere, but Boston has begun to look like the Switzerland of juvenile crime. While the city is not yet a gun-free zone for kids, no juveniles have been killed by firearms this year.

Local officials give much of the credit to a powerful new computerized system that traces crime weapons to their source. This new system, run by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, makes it easier to bring charges against gun manufacturers and dealers who are linked to a large number of juvenile crimes.

The Boston pilot program is being implemented in 16 other cities as part of the federal government's Youth Crime Gun Interdiction Initiative. The latest anticrime project of the Clinton administration, the program was kicked off by the president in Washington yesterday in a meeting with local police chiefs and prosecutors from the participating cities.

The initiative comes at a time of mounting public concern about juvenile crime. The number of juveniles who committed murder using a handgun jumped from about 500 in 1984 to 1,700 10 years later, according to Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics.

Selling weapons to a minor is already a federal crime, and it is also against the law in many cities. But few police departments have looked for a pattern that reveals where crime weapons come from. Traditionally, police simply confiscated, logged, and locked away the firearms used by teens to commit crimes. Now, using the computer system, investigators can send serial numbers and other details about a firearm to the ATF to trace the gun's history. If a weapon's manufacturer, dealer, or owner is linked to other juvenile crimes, federal agents will take up the case.

The program has drawn widespread praise from law-enforcement officials and criminologists. It is unlikely to face strong political opposition in an era of mandatory sentences and tough-talking politicians on both sides of the aisle.

"This allows us to isolate the small number of dealers who are a faucet of firearms to minors," says James Fox, dean of the school of criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston. "We will never become a gun-free America for kids, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try."

To state court Judge John Corbett, who presides over juvenile court in Plymouth, Mass., the program sounds like a breath of fresh air. Anything that helps to explain how guns get into the hands of young people is interesting, he says.

Increasingly, he says, kids know just where to go to get guns. In a recent case in his court, a teenager who had ducked into a video store quickly emerged with a gun. "Who knows if [the program] will work, but anything that gives you any information more than we have now has got to be helpful. There are just a lot of guns out there," Judge Corbett says.

To be sure, the gun-tracking program is faster and more efficient than the paper-file system it may replace. ATF officials are urging more local police departments to join in.

But the program may not be a cure-all, says Barry Feld, law professor at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Most guns used in juvenile crimes are stolen, not purchased. Violent crime is only a small part of the juvenile-crime equation, he adds. Property crimes, such as theft or arson, are nine times more common than violent crimes.

While the gun-tracking program will uncover illegal gun-selling rings, Mr. Feld says the follow-up on gun serial numbers will most often lead to the doors of law-abiding citizens who legally purchased and registered their guns.

In spite of the pilot program's successes, weapons are still plentiful on the streets, says Mr. Fox. Boston's low teen murder rate is welcome, but "you can't expect [it] to be duplicated elsewhere. It takes time to see the impact of this kind of a program."

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