(pictured above: Chief Barry Rountree wants guns off the streets.)
City leaders are making a push to reduce gun violence this year after last year’s spike in gun-related homicides.
Winston-Salem experienced a stark increase in murders last year; there were 15 of them, compared to eight in 2012. Guns were used in all but one of the 2013 homicides.
“We all should be concerned that choices were made to use a firearm to settle certain disputes that they had with others,” said Police Chief Barry Rountree.
The 2013 homicide rate didn’t set a city record. According to Rountree, the ’12 rate was an anomaly. There were also 15 homicides in 2011 and 11 homicides in 2010. There were 16 homicides in the city in 2009. Rountree, a 25-year department veteran who became chief in June, also pointed out that Winston-Salem continues to have far fewer homicides than other similar-size North Carolina cities like Greensboro, which had 28 murders last year, and Durham, which experienced 32 homicides in 2013.
Rountree is pushing for funds to implement a gun buy-back program, which would pay residents up to $150 to turn in weapons. Similar gun buypack programs across the country exchange weapons for cash with no questions asked. Rountree unsure if the local program will employ that policy.
He did say that after guns are purchased, they would be checked to see if they have been stolen or used in the commission of crime. Stolen weapons would be returned to their rightful owners. The other guns the department purchases can’t be destroyed, per a state law that took effect last year, but may be stored, donated or sold to licensed gun dealers.
“That’s not a cure all for everything. I know that as well as everyone else in the city. That’s just one small piece of our overall strategy,” Rountree said of the proposal, which was first pitched to members of the City Council late last year.
The chief also has an alternative proposal that would encourage residents to turn in weapons without being paid for them.
Council members are being asked to approve $10,000 for the buyback program, with the Police Department contributing another $10,000. Mayor Pro Tempore Vivian Burke had the Council’s decision on the program tabled until information about the city’s previous gun payback attempt in the 1990s can be probed. Burke said she believes the first buyback program was a success, but wanted to see statistics for the program before supporting another round of buybacks.
“I felt we’d take another look at it,” said Burke. “It doesn’t mean we’re not going to (support a new program).”
Burke served as the chair of the Public Safety Committee for many years. She is now the committee’s co-chair and says gun violence is a major concern of residents, especially after last year’s spike in gun violence.
“We want citizens to know … when they have concerns, we’re concerned about their concerns,” she said. “These are not issues we take lightly.”
Southwest Ward Council Member Dan Besse is also concerned about gun violence, which he says has impacted neighborhoods all across the city. He has requested crime statistics from City Manager Lee Garrity that are more detailed than the weekly stats Council members regularly receive. Rountree is expected to present more detailed statistics at the Jan. 13 Public Safety Committee meeting. Besse said he wants to see the city do all it can to combat the problem.
“What can we do on the local level to address causes?” he asked.“There are some solutions that obviously require effective national action that have been restrained by politics.”
Public Safety Committee Chair James Taylor, who supports the gun buyback proposal, said the city is already tackling violence head-on. He highlighted the Police Department’s partnership with the Forsyth County District Attorney’s Office to keep violent repeat offenders off of the streets and the hard-line police have taken on drug trafficking, as evidenced by last October’s arrests in the “Detroit Boys” heroine ring.
Taylor is also tackling drugs – another serious crime-related issue – by pushing to use nuisance abatement statutes to seize drug houses and other properties used for criminal purposes.
Taylor is also pushing for police district offices on Waughtown Street and in other communities and to launch a campaign to encourage residents to report crimes and criminal activity to the police.
“Compared to major cities like Greensboro, Raleigh and Charlotte, we’re doing very well, but we aren’t those cities. This is Winston-Salem, and we have to find a better way to deal with homicides locally,” said Taylor, who says he is organizing an anti-violence rally for next month.
Though gun violence is an issue nationwide, Congress did not address the issue with any sort of gun control legislation in 2013, though a ban on the production of semiautomatic weapons and extended clips and universal background checks were all proposed. A 2013 CBS News/New York Times poll showed that 92 percent of Americans supported universal background checks.