Constance Hulla, Pastor of Coney Island Gospel Assembly, recently hosted the NYPD’s “Gun Buy Back” Program at her Church in Coney Island. We chatted with Ms. Hulla during the event, asking her about the neighborhood, her family’s deep roots in the community, and the disturbing uptick of violence and the challenges faced by community leaders.
Q. What’s the event today?
A. It’s a gun buy back program [where the police offer pre-paid cards for guns]. For communities in the city where a lot of guns are illegally purchased from the streets—and where we’ve encountered a lot of violent murders connected to guns—one way of alleviating the availability of guns is to have a program like this.
Q. And you provide your Church as a location to host the event?
A. Yes. It’s vital to the community, so that guns can be brought to a place where no questions are asked, and they can be turned in.
Q. Do illegal gun buyers really come and turn in their weapons?
A. We find kids using guns will not necessarily turn guns in, but there’s so many guns around, when they’re located, people will find them and bring them in. A lot of parents of kids who have guns end up brining them in.
Q. How often do you host this kind of event?
A. Once a year. But the NYPD does other events like this all over the city.
Q. Do you find the program to be a success? Do you wish there was more of a response? Less?
A. I think people who bring these guns in are relieved, almost comforted. Often it’s a burden, finding a gun, that they can let off their shoulders, because of the ramifications. You find out your son has a gun. What do you with it?
Q. Tell me about the problems facing this neighborhood right now.
A. We have an overwhelming amount of violence. We’re having a funeral here Tuesday for a boy that was shot. We have many funerals here for young people.
Q. What about the boy that was stabbed at the McDonalds?
A. Yes, we had his funeral here. The Church was packed. It looked like a college auditorium, but it wasn’t. It was people that are struggling with the same issues.
Q. Now, overall crime is down, but there’s a rise in shootings. What’s your reaction to this trend?
A. I don’t know the answer to that. I do know that we’ve been in this Church for fifty seven years, and the families that we deal with are torn apart. And most families in this community have experienced some kind of violence-related issue.
Q. Where do you think the guns are coming from? Other states? Black markets?
A. I have no idea, but I know they’re available. Widely available. There’s underground crime everywhere around here.
Q. What about the kids who grow up here. Are a lot of them dragged into this violence?
Q. Is it gangs? Or just small, petty squabbles? Or a combination?
A. It’s gangs. Kids are pressured into joining gangs, whether they want to or not. Just the other day, a boy that I know was approached to join a gang. He refused and they shot at him. So now he’s been removed from New York City by his family, for safety reasons.
Q. Around what age is it that they’re approached?
A. Thirteen, twelve, fourteen…sometimes younger.
Q. And the kids who are dying and shooting each other?
A. Seventeen, and up. Usually.
Q. For people in other neighborhoods, who don’t have to deal with this kind of violence, do you have anything you want to tell them or ask of them?
A. I think they should be very supportive of the Police Department and District Attorney’s Office, and any programs that are available that they can volunteer, sit down and talk with the youth here. Especially in the field of education. We have low graduation rates—they’re in the streets a lot and not in school. Anyone who can offer to tutor or educate kids is one of the answers.
Q. The NYPD’s “stop and frisk” has been curtailed recently. Would you like to see it return to its previous levels?
A. If its handled in the manner that it should be, I think it’s a great thing that can save some of these kids lives. I wouldn’t mind being stopped and frisked. For the safety it provides, for the lives that it saves, it’s worth it.
Q. Do you think it serves as a deterrent? If a kid knows he might be stopped and frisked, he doesn’t bring a gun out to the streets?
A. I think it has a positive impact in that way, absolutely.
Q. What about alternative programs for these kids? There’s the new YCMA now, there’s summer youth programs. Could there be more? Is there something else you’d like to see that could take these kids away from the gangs’ lure?
A. I think that working with families in a personal way on these kinds of issues will reduce their occurrences. Families, especially in this community, where you have so many high-rise buildings like those [points in the distance], people in them by the thousands—and gangs are overrunning buildings, you’re under this kind of ‘war mentality.’ It overtakes their family. What the Church tries to do is work with families. When we can sort out problems on an individual basis and give help where needed, we have a chance.
Q. When you first started hosting gun buy back programs, did you reach out the police with the idea, or vice versa?
A. I was approached.
Q. Did you have any reservations?
A. Not at all. We’re a community church. My father [Jack San Filippo] started this church fifty seven years ago in a storefront. When my parents died, I took over. So I’ve been here all my life. And I know generations and generations of people here.
Q. Are local residents supportive of the gun buy back program?
A. Yes. There are a great number of people in this community who just want to go to work and make a good life for themselves and their children. But when you’re overrun with all of this crime, it’s very difficult. The peer pressure and influence are extraordinary. Crime will take over if you don’t do something to fight it.
Editor’s Note: this article is an introduction to a forthcoming larger post about Coney Island that will contain contrasting views on the merits of stop-and-frisk, the buy-back program, and other issues. Local residents can contact us to weigh in on the more expansive article, still in development.