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Arms (and minds) in ‘America’s Arsenal’

Graphic by Haewon Ma

The Winchester Repeating Arms Company closed its gun factory in New Haven, on the corner of Manson Street and Winchester Avenue, in the spring of 2006. This closure marked the end of a centuries-long relationship between arms manufacturing and the Elm City, which acquired the moniker of “the Arsenal of America” during the Civil War. And as developers vied to redevelop the factory into high-end apartments, government officials and New Haven locals countered the prospect of job loss that accompanied the closure with optimism: that Winchester’s shutting might make the city a safer, healthier place.

On Oct. 24 in New Haven, two men were shot at the Hess gas station on Ferry State Streets. In the span of one year—2011—167 shootings occurred. And in the last six years cumulatively, 65 deaths have resulted from murder or homicide. This, in a city of just 130,000 residents.

The Connecticut Mental Health Center, located on Park Street here in New Haven, sees patients every day who experience trauma-related disorders that stem from gun violence. According to the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, 34 percent of middle school youth in the city report, as of 2010, having seen someone get shot or stabbed—thus placing them at greater risk of suffering from mental illness. In New Haven’s low-income neighborhoods, too, between 67 and 77 percent of adults do not feel safe walking the streets at night.

This sort of violence outlives gunshots—it is the ensuing trauma, spurred by guns, that plagues New Haven residents and their communities at large. But this same violence has moved to the forefront of conversations surrounding Second Amendment rights and gun usage here in the Elm City. Perhaps, some advocates, police officers, and government officials argue, a more effective solution lies in looking at mental health.

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“The very presence of guns creates an atmosphere of concern and fear,” says Alfred Marder, founder of the Amistad Committee, which addresses issues of social and racial inequality in New Haven. The former chair of the city’s Peace Commission (and also of the United Nations International Association of Peace Messenger Cities and the U.S. Peace Council), he notes that there is a great concern among the community about the violence that guns have wrought. “There has to be a national institution of restrictive legislation,” he maintains.  

Achilles Generoso, Assistant Chief of the New Haven Police Department, adds that even when they are acquired legally, guns are often moved informally into the hands of others: “A criminal might acquire a gun from his parent or grandparent, for example.”

The subsequent violence that occurs when these people illegally acquire firearms has proven detrimental to the mental health of Connecticut, Generoso holds: “It affects every citizen from the victim to the neighborhood to the city and beyond.” In particular, he notes that many more people might come to New Haven to explore restaurants or shop, but—because they associate  the city with violence—decide to go elsewhere.

Generoso also highlights a more concrete manifestation of gun violence on the wellbeing of locals: “It affects the children in the city, and people in the neighborhood where violence occurred suffer from PTSD. It is incredibly traumatic to people when they see what is happening, and it becomes a mental health issue.”

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Over the last few years, efforts to limit gun violence in New Haven have been largely successful. In November 2012, the New Haven Police Department, in cooperation with the state and federal government, instituted Project Longevity, which focuses on contacting gang members and making them aware of guns’ effects on their communities. This initiative takes a comprehensive and psychological approach to gun violence—and since its enactment, gun violence in the city has decreased dramatically. Michael Sierra-Arevalo, an affiliate fellow at Yale’s Institution for Social and Policy Studies (ISPS), and a graduate student affiliate of the Center for Research on Inequalities and the Life Course (CIQLE), studies the patterns of gangs residing in impoverished neighborhoods in the context of urban violence. He emphasis that Project Longevity is not “stop and frisk style policing, but a focused approach that concentrates on those men that are engaging in violence.”

Initiatives like Project Longevity, as Assistant Chief of the New Haven Police Department Anthony Campbell notes, look at the underlying causes of gun violence. He emphasizes the strong link between gun possession, mental health, and violence: “Feelings of invalidation and disrespect escalate, leading to this violence.”

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Many other initiatives are intended explicitly for children. “Parents are afraid to let their kids ride their bikes outside for fear that they will be shot,” claims Laurence Grotheer, Director of Communications for the City of New Haven. Sierra-Arevalo elaborates: “The exposure to continued violence engenders negative cognitive outcomes for children.”

For these children, gun violence is linked to broader issues of policing and social order. “The proximity to gun violence is often a traumatic experience, especially for young people and people who know those involved. It is stressful to have police looking through your streets and it’s harder to live in these neighborhoods,” Grotheer says.

It is for this reason that Mayor Toni Harp has engaged with each of the government’s departments to provide additional programming for young people: to give them spaces where they can feel safe after school and during summer vacation. This programming uses statistics and data to identify at-risk youths and to match these youths to tutoring, counseling, and anger management programs.

New Haven has also partnered with the Yale Child Study Center to counsel young trauma victims. Local public schools are offering wrap-around services to address any other issues that affected students might have.

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Yet in spite of the successes of this mental health-based solution to gun violence, the majority of New Haven’s initiatives continue to work by targeting those who illegal possess firearms. “Keeping guns out of the hands of criminals is our priority,” Campbell says. “The mayor wants expanded background checks, prohibition of assault weapons, and gun safety laws. There are too many guns and they are too readily accessible,” Grotheer notes.

Harp has piloted efforts like “Shot Spotter,” which uses a series of antennae to record the sound of gunfire. Shot Spotter allows for the police to monitor three times more of New Haven than they could before—and instead of waiting for a 9-1-1 call, officers can respond to gunfire directly and launch an investigation within minutes. The technology is highly accurate: it can determine the number of shots fired and triangulate the sound to pinpoint the incident’s location and the caliber of weapon fire.

Additionally, the NHPD has begun to offer gun trade-in and buy-back programs, which are now commonplace across the United States. Campbell says that locals have turned in over 100 guns thus far.

But these more conventional efforts miss the mark, claims Sierra-Arevalo: “We need to think long and hard about the purpose of the criminal justice system and focus resources not on arresting more people, but on helping the right people. We need to reduce the number of people who come in contact with criminal justice system altogether.”

Efforts like Project Longevity—that is, efforts that treat New Haven’s gun violence epidemic in relation to issues of mental health—are a start.

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