In typical New York fashion, Emily Bazelon throws words at an inherent conflict as if to “rhetoric over” the two flagrantly conflicting positions of the untenable left. Guns are either awful killing machines or not. Illegally possessed guns are even worse. Except when possessed by young men of color in Brooklyn, in which case guns are unfortunate examples of the failure of police and the oppression of society.
Y.C.P. offers a narrow escape hatch from New York’s punitive gun laws, which are among the harshest in the country. The state imposes a 3½-year mandatory minimum prison sentence for people who are convicted of the maximum charge for possessing a loaded gun without a license. In some states, possessing a gun without a permit isn’t even a crime. Other states treat the offense as a misdemeanor or make exceptions for having an unlicensed gun in one’s home. But in New York, gun control has taken a form that includes mandatory prison sentences.
Y.C.P. is a program run out of the Kings County District Attorney’s office.
The trouble started when the New York Police Department chief, Terence Monahan, suggested at the same gathering that the blame for a rise in shootings so far this year lay with plea deals in Brooklyn “that result in little or no jail time.” It’s true that a small fraction of young people charged with illegal gun possession in Brooklyn — but not for shooting anyone or even brandishing a gun — are accepted into a yearlong program, run by the office of District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, called Youth and Communities in Partnership, or Y.C.P. Participants meet weekly with a social worker, adhere to a curfew, and must work or take classes and complete dozens of hours of community service. If they graduate from the program, they are spared prison and the burden of a felony record.
The line sandwiched between emdashes is the disingenuous rationalization. Obviously, the only kids accepted into the program are the ones who didn’t murder, didn’t threaten, at that moment. To say they weren’t shooters at that moment is to suggest that anyone carrying an illegal gun shoved into the back of their pants is just some poor, innocent, oppressed kid. And, indeed, that’s her story and Bazelon is sticking with it.
Young people in Y.C.P. often said they had guns for “protection.” This was wrenching to hear, because the guns didn’t deliver on that promise. Instead, they brought more danger by escalating the potential and consequences of conflict.
Of course that’s what they said. What else were they going to say, that they had it just in case they needed to shoot up a bar where some dude disrespected them? And it’s true that some people carried guns for “protection,” rather than affirmative use, but why? What were they doing that made them feel the need for a gun for protection so strongly? Sure, guns are cool ways to impress your friends and dazzle the ladies with your machismo, but nobody needs a gun for protection unless they’re up to something that puts them at risk. The usual reason is that their day job is selling drugs on the corner and they need protection from the competition, also armed and potentially lethal. That’s the nature of the business.
But to pass this off as some benign, well-intended gun possession, is fantasy. Nobody can be so naive about the kids carrying illegal guns. They had to go out and find someone selling illegal guns. They had to break open their piggy bank to get the money to buy it. They had to want to carry it enough to risk the fair possibility that they would get tossed by a cop and the gun found, subjecting them to felony arrest and the current mandatory minimum sentence of 3½ years in prison.
There are two, essentially unrelated points in Bazelon’s argument. The first, about how these gun-toting youths are somehow poor victims of the system of oppression, is in there merely to rationalize the facially conflicting tenets of the left. After all, if guns are the worst, then people who carry illegal guns are the worst of the worst. Except when they’re not.
And yet, nonetheless, 330 young people who completed Y.C.P. and a smaller similar program between 2006 and 2016 had a 22 percent lower rearrest rate within three years than others in their 16-to-24-year-old age group who went to prison and then were released. Brooklyn’s programs also had a relatively low rate of future felony convictions, 7 percent (along with 9 percent for misdemeanors).
This is the other half of the argument, that throwing kids in prison for increasingly longer bits isn’t the only answer, or the best answer. Y.C.P. has proven effective in saving these young people from a felony record, from prison and from recidivism. Not perfectly by a long shot, but better than the alternative.
But that doesn’t make prison the answer. Almost everyone who gets locked up for possessing a gun comes home within a few years, less equipped to get a decent job or housing. Brooklyn’s willingness to offer an alternative is Y.C.P.’s great innovation.
Years ago, first time possession of a weapon typically resulted in probation. Then came the crack epidemic and bodies in the street, mostly drug dealers shooting each other for hegemony, and the people screamed for a way to end this blight. More time was the obvious answer, and so the state increased the mandatory minimum for gun possession. New York is now up to 3½ years, far more than needed to destroy any possibility that this kid selling weed on the corner to make a few bucks, because what other job is he going to get, and carrying around his rusty old revolver, will ever grow up into a productive, law-abiding citizen.
The fantasy that these are just nice, ordinary kids who happen to have a gun shoved into their waistband, just in case, isn’t necessary and isn’t true. That the Y.C.P. program works, and prison doesn’t, is true.
The activist compulsion to strum the heartstrings of the woke with fantasy narratives to turn the kids with guns into saintly darlings so you won’t be conflicted with your gun hatred and demand for life plus cancer doesn’t change reality, that the kids carrying illegal guns aren’t poor oppressed victims, but the way to fix it isn’t by destroying any hope and turning them into felons without any future.