Changing Young Offenders' Attitudes About Guns
By Keith Martin, Assistant Editor

The dangers of carrying a gun are often left out in the glamorous portrayals on television and in the lyrics of music. The fact that carrying a gun comes with consequences is often lost on many young people, many times until it is too late. One program in Detroit, Michigan, is showing young offenders the true costs that come with carrying a gun.

"Most of the people we deal with are carrying guns for protection, so we dispel that myth immediately," says Denise Hall, Program Manager of the Handgun Intervention Program (HIP) and a probation officer. "Guns do not protect them. With a gun, they feel like Superman, often going places and doing things they wouldn't do without it. Instead, we want them to use their head and think their way out of a situation."

Each Saturday, Judge Willie Lipscomb, Jr. and his staff of community and court volunteers meet with young offenders for four hours to discuss the real life issues of gun violence. Lipscomb created the program in 1993 after a young man he was close to was shot and killed. In order to end the constant numbers of young people charged with gun offenses and not learning a lesson, Lipscomb developed a court-based education program where attendance is ordered as a condition of their bond. Those participating in the classes are predominantly African-American males, ages 12-28, who have been charged with carrying illegal and/or concealed weapons.

"We tell them that carrying a gun will lead to one of three things: jail, death or life in a wheelchair," adds Hall.

Making a Statement Early On

The first part of the class includes a slide show presentation of murdered gunshot victims as well as a visit to the city morgue. The intense nature of viewing these images is not meant to shock participants, but instead put real faces to the problem of gun violence. According to Hall, these powerful presentations combat the glamorous images of using a gun that many see on television.

"The trips to the morgue really show the aftermath of what a gun can do to an individual," she says. "We're appealing to their sense of humanity. These people who have been shot and killed have family who love them and when they come to the morgue, this is what they have to see. Young people are being killed over petty disputes and it's senseless."

Next, there are presentations on various historical figures and civil rights leaders and the work they have done to improve the lives of future generations. The message is that the participants can change and become better role models and citizens, thus improving the quality of their community. The program also steers offenders looking for employment or educational opportunities toward community-based services.

"We let them know that the charges against them now are serious and future actions could turn to felonies," says Hall. "Young people already have a hard time getting a job [without having a criminal record] and that can prevent them from being who they want to be."

The final segment of the program involves a variety of speakers from the community, from law enforcement officers to those who have lost a family member to gun violence. During this time, Judge Lipscomb addresses the offenders as well as answers questions. Also, information and statistics on gun violence is handed out and discussions begin about alternative means of conflict resolution beyond carrying a gun. Finally, participants are asked to take an oath of nonviolence. According to Hall, about 95 percent of those in the program take the pledge not to initiate violence. 

In 1998, a Department of Justice study conducted by Dr. Jeffrey Roth of the Urban Institute found that only after one class, participants' attitudes regarding handguns changed favorably.

Speaking From Experience

Along with Lipscomb, Corporal John Jones of the Wayne County Sheriff's Department is one of the program's main speakers. He has been affiliated with the program since its inception, bringing his message to schools, churches and others in the community.

Before becoming an officer 17 years ago, Jones was a gunshot victim himself. Shot in the heart, he died on the operating table. Doctors were able to revive him, but he had extensive damage to his heart and lungs. The bullet still lodged in his spinal cord that doctors could not remove serves as a reminder of the incident. 

"It's one of the reasons I still get up every Saturday morning and [speak]," he says. "I enjoy it. I don't get paid to do this. The payment is in the look and response on peoples' faces. They are able to respond to what I am saying and that makes me feel good. If one or two of them come back [to talk to the students or say thanks], that's worth a million dollars."

If so, then Jones is wealthy many times over. He can recall a number of times where participants have not only thanked him after the class, but also brought loved ones and their own children to later classes to hear the program's powerful message. Even in the community, Jones is recognized by past participants who have changed the way they live, in part, because of the lessons learned on that one Saturday morning. 

Because of them, Jones will continue to wake up early every Saturday and go to the courtroom. Someday, however, he hopes that maybe class will be a little different.

"Our goal is to come in one Saturday morning, go to class and have no one will need to be there, so [all of the volunteers and Judge Lipscomb] can just drink coffee and talk," he says.


To find out more about the Handgun Intervention Program, go to:

Denise Hall, Program Manager, HIP, (313) 965-3794

John Jones, Deputy Sheriff, Wayne County Sheriff's Department, (313) 224-2233
159 Burgin Parkway | Quincy, MA 02169
617-471-4445 | Fax 617-770-3339