U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite, a 39-year-old Harvard-educated black federal prosecutor whose own life has been shaped by street violence in New Orleans, is renewing his focus on combatting gun violence among young people — this time by getting guns out of school zones.
Polite, along with other New Orleans lawmen, rolled out the new crimefighting plan Thursday. He plans to enforce underused federal laws banning the unlawful possession of guns in school zones.
Since taking office in September 2013, Polite has tried to help New Orleans turn around its dire street violence with school visits and targeting street gangs.
Polite was raised in the Lower 9th Ward by a single mother and lost a half-brother to gun violence in 2004.
“We’re going to start enforcing the gun laws,” Polite said shortly before heading out into a neighborhood surrounding the Mildred Osborne Charter School, a new school built in New Orleans East, a large predominantly African-American suburban area that’s struggled to rebuild since Hurricane Katrina hit 10 years ago.
Polite said he wants to give more teeth to the Gun-Free School Zones Act, a federal statute first passed in 1990. Under the law, it is a crime to unlawfully possess a firearm within 1,000 feet of any elementary and secondary school. The law does not have any bearing on guns that are legally owned and carried. A conviction under the statutes carries a maximum sentence of five years.
“This is an underutilized federal statute that will assist us in removing illegal firearms from our streets, particularly as we are seeing spikes in violent crime,” he said.
New Orleans — long one of America’s most violent cities — is experiencing a steady uptick in murders this year. So far there have been 110 homicides. There had been 81 as of this time last year.
Of the 110 murders this year, New Orleans police data show that nine of the homicides took the life of someone 17 or younger (or 8 percent) and 29 homicides took the life of someone between 18 and 24 years of age (or 26 percent).
“We need the public’s help in two ways: Report illegal firearms to ATF or Crimestoppers, and spread the message that unlawful possession of firearms near our children’s schools will lead to federal prison,” Polite said.
Polite was joined by New Orleans Police Superintendent Michael Harrison, Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in the initiative.
Under stormy clouds, Polite, dressed in Bermuda shorts and tennis shoes, canvassed the surrounding neighborhood, leaving leaflets in mailboxes and talking to residents about the guns-out-of-schools campaign.
With evening approaching, Polite was still going at it. “It’s going well,” he said, a bunch of brochures in his hands. “People seem very receptive.”