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Brazen weapon fire chills police

Gangs obtaining more assault rifles; Victim, 12, still has bullet in leg

By Maria Cramer and Brian R. Ballou
Globe Staff / July 30, 2009

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The gang shoot-out that rained gunfire and smoke on a quiet Dorchester street this week disturbed police on many levels: the seemingly new height in disregard for neighborhood safety, the fact that a 12-year-old girl watching TV inside a nearby house was shot through the leg.

But even more alarming: At least one of the weapons used in the gunfire was an AK-47 assault rifle, the fourth time in three weeks that one had been found or used in Boston and the seventh time since last July, when a 32-year-old man was shot dead with one.

Police say they are noticing more of the fearsome firearms on Boston streets than last year and, in particular, are concerned that there have been so many in the past three weeks. Tomorrow afternoon, Mayor Thomas M. Menino will meet with ministers in Roxbury to discuss crime in the city and the sudden proliferation of the rifles.

“This [weapon] can lay down a lot of fire in an urban area where there is basically no cover from it,’’ Commissioner Edward F. Davis said yesterday. “You can conceal yourself from these weapons, but they’ll rip through a car. They’ll rip through a telephone pole. They can rip through just about anything in an urban environment.’’

“Everybody understands when they read the morning paper that you have to push as much as you can to get these guns off the street,’’ he said.

As police try to find who was involved in the nighttime shoot-out that sent a child to the hospital with a bullet in her leg Monday, they say they are also grappling with a frightening and unusual trend that has cast a pall over what has been a relatively calm summer.

Nine assault rifles have been confiscated so far this year, compared with four seized in 2008. Eighteen assault rifles were found in 2007.

The vast majority of firearms used in homicides and shootings are still handguns.

But police worry about the attractiveness of assault rifles to gangs. AK-47s are much more powerful than handguns, capable of firing at least 100 yards, and can be easily converted into automatic weapons.

“There is also an intimidation factor, because it is a very chilling, menacing weapon,’’ said James Alan Fox, a professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University. “For whatever street value there is to it, its value in terms of intimidation may be far greater.’’

Monday’s incident was especially troubling because a bullet, believed to have been fired by an AK-47, pierced a house wall and hurtled through a mattress before striking 12-year-old Arisneidy Tejeda.

Yesterday, the child was at home with her family, still shaken. The bullet was still in her leg and probably will remain there the rest of her life because it is too close to the nerves to remove, her mother, Arianny Sanchez, said yesterday.

“I thought I was going to die,’’ Tejeda said, as she ate lunch with her younger sister.

Sanchez said her daughter begged her to let her sleep with her on Tuesday.

“She doesn’t want to go outside now, and she’s scared to sleep alone,’’ Sanchez said.

Davis said investigators are trying to find out where the AK-47s are coming from, why more of them are appearing on the streets now, and who is trying to obtain them. The majority of the incidents involving the rifles were gang-related, he said.

The guns have surfaced as Boston police have pushed to provide more of their own officers with M16s, high powered semiautomatic rifles.

In May, the Globe reported that police had ordered about 200 M16s free of charge from the US military and made plans to train dozens of officers and arm them with the rifles.

The plan elicited sharp criticism from Menino, who said only specialized units should have the guns, and community leaders who decried the lack of public notice.

Yesterday, Davis said he would not use the recent incidents to make a push for arming patrol officers with the guns.

But he said the department would probably expand its SWAT team operations so that more officers could be placed in the specialized unit and trained on M16s.

Davis said he also plans to increase the hours of the SWAT team operations so that there are more gun cars, police cruisers armed with the assault rifles, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“Clearly there is a problem out there,’’ he said. “We have to make sure the community and the officers are protected.’’

Davis said he believes the AK-47s probably were first available in American gun stores, but somehow made their way into the hands of criminals.

Community leaders and gun control advocates yesterday said many of the illegal guns in Massachusetts likely come from states like Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, where private gun owners can sell their weapons to anyone without requiring background checks.

Bruce Wall, the pastor of the Global Ministries Christian Church in Codman Square, said he is planning to hold a prayer summit on the steps of the New Hampshire State Capitol in Concord, N.H., to get the attention of public officials and call on them to tighten their laws.

“We’re going to pray for the trafficking of guns to stop,’’ he said. “Those gun shows in those states are making a lot of money off people in Massachusetts. Now the criminals are using weapons that can outpower what the police have.’’

Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com.