Hartford, Connecticut Mayor Pedro Segarra has been taking forceful steps to take guns out of the streets in his community. (Photo:Sandra Lilley )

One Mayor’s crusade to get guns off the street

It is local officials like Pedro Segarra, the Mayor of Hartford, Connecticut, who are in the front lines of the effects of guns in our neighborhoods, towns and cities.  In fact, Mayor Segarra, whose city is 45 miles from Newtown, says he is doing everything in his power to get guns off the streets.

For Segarra, the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting hits close to home.  He had met one of Newtown’s young victims, six-year-old Ana M. Marquez-Green.

“I had met Ana;  her father, who is a jazz musician, had played with my late brother-in-law,” says the Hartford Mayor.

Segarra, who was a social worker and a psychotherapist before practicing law and later entering politics, has personally experienced this kind of loss.  The Mayor lost his father to gun violence when he was only 1-year-old.      “I need to be a force to bring people together to lessen the possibility of this happening again.”

Segarra is part of the organization Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which advocates to “keep lethal, military-style weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines off our streets,” and fights to keep illegal weapons and the traffic of illegal weapons off the streets.  The group also calls for more registration, issuance and weapons transportation requirements.

But in Segarra’s own city of 125,000, the Latino Mayor has created a broad social and law-enforcement strategy to minimize the prevalence of weapons and gun violence in his city. “What we are trying to do is risk reduction,” he says.

Today, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, of which Segarra is a member, sent an open letter to President Obama and the U.S. Congress.  “We urge you to take immediate action: the President to exercise his powers though Executive Order and Congress to introduce and pass legislation to make reasonable changes in our gun laws and regulations,” the group says.  The Mayors urge three things: legislation banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, strengthening the national background  system and eliminate existing loopholes, and strengthening penalties for straw purchases of guns.

In Hartford, Connecticut, Mayor Segarra uses his background in social work and law and takes what he calls a “holistic” approach to reducing firearms violence.  The first thing, Segarra says, is to surround children with nurturing, positive experiences.  “We have been promoting our agenda of universal preschool,” he says, and the city has gone from preschool opportunities for 23 percent of the children to over 70 percent of the city’s kids, he states.  Segarra and the police have worked to expand children’s access to Police Athletic League (PAL) programs and more constructive relationships between young people and local officers.  “We’ve also been taking the kids ice skating, skiing, to concerts- all these things help humanize and expose children to positive things, especially those children who have been exposed to violence, especially domestic violence,”  Segarra explains.

Segarra worries about cuts in health and human services funds.  “You can’t have progress without intervention,” says the Mayor.

On the law enforcement side, Segarra has spearheaded several programs.  To put the proliferation of weapons in perspective, the Mayor relates what happened at a weapons buy-back program a few weeks ago.  “We had scheduled the buy-back from 10am to 3pm.  Within two hours, we were running out of money,” says Segarra.  They started giving gift cards instead, but the important thing, says the Mayor, is that they had encouraged many residents, including people with mental health issues or depression and households where guns might pose a great risk, to turn weapons in. “It shows there is a willingness from many in the community to de-arm themselves,” he says.

On the other hand, Segarra says,  the city has created an aggressive shooting task force to identify and prosecute the small number of people who perpetrate gun violence.  “We have gone from a crime resolution of 26 percent to almost 75 percent,” he says.  Hartford, as well as several other cities, participate in Project Longevity, which takes people who have been recently released from prison or have cases pending and put them under strict supervision with a cocoon of services, “provided they engage in no more gun violence,” Segarra explains. “If  they violate the law we will come down hard on them and their associates, but we will make available as many services as we can to help them out,” he says.

Segarra says he is “fearfully optimistic” that the Newtown school massacre will lead to some change.  When asked why he says “fearful,” Segarra states, “I recognize that if this incident doesn’t move people to action, nothing else will,” he states.  “I can’t think of anything more horrible than this to move people to action and to confront those who feel access to this type of weapon is what our founding fathers had envisioned.”

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