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No Magic Bullet

While Albany’s funding for gun buyback program continues, its efficacy remains a matter of debate

Though the number of gunshots fired in the city has gone down nearly 40 percent since the introduction of Albany County’s Put it Down gun buyback program, its opponents hope to trigger a closer evaluation.

A movement calling for Albany County to allocate a third installment of $10,000 to the program was approved last Monday by the legislature in a 34-3 vote. Among the three opposed to continuing the funding was Legislator Wanda Willingham, who is adamantly against the program as a whole. “There is no reason we should support this,” she said, before voting. “This is feel-good legislation.”

The program is administered by the Rev. Charlie Muller, pastor of Victory Christian Church and Albany County District Attorney David Soares’ office, and it is overseen by the County Sheriff and the Albany Police Department.

As it stands now, Muller accepts firearms at his church on Quail Street in exchange for a $150 gift certificate to Crossgates Mall. The guns are kept in a locked vault at his church, a former post office, until retrieved and melted down by the police. In addition to the $30,000 the program has received from Albany County, it has also received funding from private donations made through Soares’ office.

The program was started in May 2008 as an immediate response to the death of 10-year-old Kathina Thomas, who was killed by a stray bullet in West Hill. In almost two years, the program has yielded more than 300 firearms, while the number of shots fired in the city has decreased by nearly 40 percent. Soares said that this proves the program’s statistics success.

During a meeting of the county legislature’s Audit and Finance Committee, Soares claimed that he has listened through wiretaps as suspects have complained about not being able to track down a gun. “During those investigations we are learning from our criminal targets that they’re having trouble acquiring handguns, and to me that’s the greatest endorsement you can have for any program,” he said. He added that the recent increase in the the number of stabbings in the city is further proof that the buyback program is working.

“When the number of guns taken off the street reaches 300, you know lives are being saved,” said Muller.

Critics of the program don’t believe this data is the most accurate measure of the program’s effectiveness. Dr. Leonard Morgenbesser, one of Albany’s leading advocates against gun crime, believes there are more factors involved in the decrease in number of gun crimes. For years, Morgenbesser has tracked incidents of media-reported gun crime in the city.

“I don’t think we can completely attribute the decrease that the city is claiming to Pastor Charlie’s program,” he said, mentioning other violence and gang-prevention programs in the area.

“The volume may be impressive,” he said, “but I wouldn’t say volume, per se, would lead us to conclusive information. The best way to measure its success is to have some sort of external evaluation to determine the resemblance between guns used on the street and the guns turned in to the pastor.”

The type of weapons retrieved and the state they lead many nonsupporters to believe there are flaws in the buyback system.

Muller dismissed claims made by members of the National Rifle Association, who assume buyback weapons are mostly “old and unworkable” guns, saying, “It couldn’t be further from the truth. We only accept firearms that are in working condition.”

Still, the program’s opponents do not necessarily equate working guns turned into Muller with the guns that are involved in street crimes.

“This program is not effective,” said Willingham. “The guns they get back are nothing but junk. They are not taking guns off the street.”

Morgenbesser cited a study conducted in Milwaukee in the 1990s that compared the type, caliber and manufacturer of 941 handguns taken in Milwaukee County buyback programs to those used in crimes in the same location. The result of the Milwaukee study was disheartening.

According to the study, the guns bought back “differed substantially from those used in homicide and suicide,” concluding: “Although buyback programs may increase awareness of firearm violence, limited resources for firearm injury prevention may be better spent in other ways.”

Another question raised is whether it’s crucial to offer compensation to those likely to turn in handguns. According to Soares, an incentive is “very necessary” to guarantee individual participation, attributing the state of the economy as a reason to turn in a weapon for cash.

“But why $150?” asks Morgenbesser. “If they gave $50 gift cards, would they have the same results?”

Others believe that getting guns off the street is incentive enough. When Willingham found a gun, she turned it in to the police directly. “I didn’t have to go to a pastor to do it,” she said. “And we’re calling [the payment] a gift card? That is an insult to victims’ families.”

Willingham believes the money should be redirected to preventative measures—to address the selling of illegal firearms and to educate children about gun violence.

“There are so many options law enforcement has,” she said. “And as far as I’m concerned, everything is after the fact. It’s always after someone has been shot or killed. That’s reactive, not proactive.”

Soares remains confident that the program has made a difference, with about 150 guns removed as the result of interdiction efforts.

“If there are still doubts about the efficacy of the program,” said Soares, “then I don’t know what the expectations are.”

—Elizabeth Knapp

The Prevailing Argument

The Albany Common Council votes down an amendment supporting union wages

The Albany Common Council voted Monday night to approve the formation of the City of Albany Capital Resource Corporation. The CRC will be a companion component to Albany’s Industrial Development Authority; the two agencies will have the same board and same professional staffing. In 2008, the state Legislature let the IDAs’ ability to finance nonprofit projects lapse. The CRC is being created to fill that funding void.

The vote to authorize the CRC’s creation was a relatively uncontentious one.

What was contentious was an amendment to the resolution presented by First Ward Councilman Dominick Calsolaro. The amendment would have added language to the resolution guaranteeing that any project the CRC becomes involved with would pay prevailing wage, a rate “determined by virtue of collective bargaining agreements between bona fide labor organizations and employers of the private sector,” according to the New York State Department of Labor.

Proponents of Calsolaro’s amendment argued that it was vital to maintaining a strong middle class, as Councilwoman Catherine Fahey argued: “How do you expect to create a middle class if you don’t create middle-class jobs?”

“How can these people get up there and say that they support labor, and they support prevailing wage, and then vote against the one chance that they have to put it in practice?” asked Calsolaro.

His amendment was voted down 9 to 5, with Michael O’Brien voting “present.”

Freshman Councilman Frank Commisso Jr. supported the amendment. He said that by not supporting prevailing wage, the council was instead supporting “a race to the bottom.”

Later, he told Metroland, “We don’t want contractors competing on price and nothing else. I wanted to give labor a shot here to get fair compensation for their work on major projects here in Albany. I think that the alternative, what we are going to wind up with, is contractors competing on the basis of price. And it’s going to completely price out good labor that is well-trained and that does good work.”

You get what you pay for, he said.

Opponents of the amendment pointed out that if the city insists upon prevailing wage, then those seeking these funds could go to another institution, such as the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York, or directly to Bank of America. “If we could pass legislation that would enforce the payment of prevailing wage in the city of Albany, I would vote for that,” said President Pro Tempore Richard Conti, “but we can’t.”

Conti joined others who said that this is an issue that needs to be resolved at the state level.

Further, critics of the amendment pointed out, the CRC will collect administrative fees on the financing deals that it helps arrange, just like the IDA. And like the IDA, much of that money will go to support community projects, such as the Arbor Hill Community Center and the Summer Youth Employment Program.

To place the burden of prevailing wage on the CRC would, in effect, lessen the support these institutions receive.

Commisso dismissed this concern.

“Some of the council members got nervous that some of these projects would be put in jeopardy if they supported the general concept of supporting protections for labor in the CRC legislation,” he said. “If we see to it that these programs are priorities to us, we can fund them. To scare everybody into thinking that the Arbor Hill Community Center is going away because of this amendment is wrong.”

Plus, Commisso added, had the amendment had the negative consequences that its opponents suggested, there would be nothing stopping the council from “taking legislative initiative and changing course in the future.”

Councilwoman Barbara Smith, who supported the amendment, lamented at the time of the vote that these two issues should not be pitted against each other, “so that we have don’t an incredible conflict over the right thing to do.”

—Chet Hardin

Members Rally for Their Y

Photo: Alicia Solsman

Members of the YMCA task force joined the community and members of the Y on Tuesday to protest the Capital District YMCA’s plan to close the Washington Avenue branch at the end of this month. The area in front of the branch was filled with protesters and politicians as advocates, such as Betsy Mercogliano (pictured), gave impassioned speeches. Despite their hard feelings over the closure, many members interviewed said that they will continue their relationship with the Y. However, according to Corey Ellis, Y president David Brown pledged to refund fees to any of the roughly 700 people who signed up this year as part of the membership drive to save the Y, should they choose to cancel their memberships.




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