Neal Dobbins, the MVP against gun violence in Buffalo

Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — Neal Dobbins will talk to you for hours about the issues that move him, about gun violence and the fragile lives of young black males in our cities. His voice rises when he grows emotional, like a siren piercing the night, crying out for justice and change. 

“If my passion sounds like anger, pardon me,” Dobbins said recently at the Back To Basic headquarters on Buffalo’s East Side. “It’s not anger.”

This is a time for action, not anger. He has devoted his life to helping young African-Americans and battling the national scourge of gun violence. Yes, it can be a frustrating quest, but he can’t give in to the anger. He said he channels it into the work.

“Being a black man, in my line of work and as passionate as I am about it, I don’t have the luxury to give in to hopelessness,” he said. 

A little over two years ago, Dobbins was lying awake at 5 in the morning when he had an inspiration. Days earlier, a woman named Yvette Johnson and her 17-month-old grandson, Kyrie, had been killed by gunfire on in the city’s Fruit Belt neighborhood.

Dobbins knew the pain of burying a child. How many parents would need to suffer before things could change? So he and his wife, Monica, decided to form a community group. They called it MVP — Most Valuable Parents, or M for mothers, V for violence, P for peace. 

He reached out on Facebook, urging the community to come together, as parents, to rally for change. They needed to show solidarity; they had a duty to speak up against the violence. 

“I didn’t know where it was going to take us,” Dobbins said. “But I felt I had to make that call.”

It spread like wildfire. Hundreds of parents responded and showed up to the first MVP meeting at the Edward Saunders Center on Bailey Avenue. There was a line around the building. 

“He invited me to one of their meetings,” said John Flynn, Erie County’s district attorney. “He’s very well-informed and exhibited a lot of passion. The room was packed! There must have been 100 or 200 people in there — women, men, mothers, fathers.”

Dobbins said there are more than 1,200 people on the MVP mailing list. Many have lost children to gun violence. There’s also a support group for parents who meet at Bennett High School. Most of them are grieving mothers.

“I have one lady in our group, she still calls her son’s cell number,” Dobbins said. “Sometimes, she just wants to give him a call. She’s hasn’t accepted that he’s really gone. It’s been about five years.

Dobbins can relate. In 2003, his son, Neal, was struck in the chest by a stray bullet and died at 23. Dobbins was at his fish market on Fillmore (Nile, named after his daughter) on a Saturday when someone called to say they had heard over a police scanner he had been shot. 

He knew instantly it had to be Neal Jr. Dobbins called his son’s phone and got no answer. ‘Answer, answer, answer!’ he said. He went to Sisters Hospital and met some family members in the waiting room. A doctor came out and asked, “Who’s the father?”

“I am,” Neal replied. 

“Your son cried for you, man,” the doctor said. “He really loves you. He said to tell you he loves you. But we lost him.”

Dobbins will never forget the pained expression on the face of the doctor, who delivered his son’s dying words. He’s carried his own hurt around ever since. There was real anger then, to be sure.

A year after his son’s death, Dobbins and a Stop The Violence coalition marched on City Hall in Buffalo, chanting for the removal of then-police chief Rocco Diina, calling for the overdue establishment of a homicide squad. Neal was the keynote speaker in the square.

But he struggled emotionally in the aftermath of Neal’s shooting. Dobbins moved to Virginia Beach, and began a new career in 2005. But his heart, and his three younger children, were still in Buffalo. He didn’t see them enough. He moved back in 2010.

Dobbins was determined to keep his younger son, Hakeem, close. Hakeem played football and basketball. He was a high school hoop star at Middle Early College and for the last two years was the starting point guard at Finger Lakes Community College. 

Since the mid-1990s, Dobbins has been active with city youth, working with young football and basketball players and taking Hakeem and his friends around to various games and camps. The memory of Neal Jr., and the harsh reality of gun violence in the streets, haunts him still.

“I’ll tell you the trauma I still go through, that a lot of parents still go through,” Dobbins said. “If Hakeem wants to go to a cookout or something, he’s 20 years old. I can’t deny him that. But I let him know I prefer he not go.

“While I’m at home, I’m worried. I wake up, check on him, call him. We have an agreement that he always answers when I call. When I call, I worry.”

He still wonders if Neal Jr. would be alive today if he had been as insistent a dad back then. The dangers of the streets remain real. One of his son’s friends, Jordan Fayson, was a top receiver at Bennett but never played again after getting shot. 

Davonte Gaines, the best college basketball player to come out of the city in years, was grazed by a bullet in an incident that killed his friend, Raymond Patterson III, when they were 14 years old. Gaines is now playing for Tennessee in the SEC.

“This kid was standing on a porch and almost got killed,” said Dobbins, who runs a medical taxi service with his wife. “Now he’s at the University of Tennessee and they love him. You’ve got NBA teams looking at him already.”

Dobbins mentioned other kids he’s seen go on to better things in basketball, like Davion Warren, now starting at Hampton. Desmond Randall is now the hoop coach at Villa Maria in Buffalo.

“Those kids grew up in my house, in my basement, in my yard,” Dobbins, 60, said. 

Part of the mission is teaching African-American boys “life skills, peer pressure, conflict resolution and decision-making.” He accessed the Say Yes program for financial help with college. It’s about more than sports. 

Of course, there are too many stories of the kids who get lost to the streets, and in many cases to senseless gun violence. Dobbins has attacked the issue with a vengeance, devouring reports on illegal gun trafficking and working with local community leaders and politicians to seek real solutions. 

Pastor James Giles, who runs Back To Basics Ministries on William Street, has been dealing with these issues for three decades. He and Dobbins have what Neal calls a “synergy” of purpose. Giles marvels at Dobbins’s devotion to the cause.

Sadly, gun violence has become an epidemic in America’s cities, alongside the coronavirus pandemic. Shootings have soared in the first eight months of the year. 

“From June to the end of July, we had a 300 percent increase in the number of victims shot,” Giles said. “Three times the number that would occur during a heated summer. We’ve had a 300 percent increase in the number of women being shot.”

Over a 10-day period in late June, there were 16 shootings in Buffalo, three fatal. Giles told reporters it wouldn’t stop. He was right. The carnage continued into August, when there were three homicides in three days. Gun homicides are up about 80 percent this year, roughly the figure for the state.

Pastor Giles said there are a variety of reasons for the surge in gun violence. He agrees with Buffalo police commissioner  Byron Lockwood that the pandemic has been a factor. The summer of protest over police brutality also fueled it.

“Normally, a lot of negative energy that exists in the subculture is going to be exhausted on the basketball courts and the clubs,” Giles said. “But after the George Floyd incident, when the protestors came out, it gave everybody permission to come out in droves. And that’s when we really started to get the spike.

“I know of family members that have shot each other,” he said. “There’s an argument where normally you might knuckle it out, now the guy goes out and gets a gun and shoots somebody.”

But the bottom denominator,  as Giles and Dobbins see it, is the guns themselves. When there are close to 400 million guns in the country, more than one for every citizen, too many will wind up in the wrong hands, with lethal consequences.

That’s the issue that drives Dobbins, who has become a tireless, extraordinarily educated, spokesman on gun violence. On July 30, MVP held a press conference at the corner of Genesee Street and Jefferson Avenue, where he announced the group’s 2020 Anti-Gun Violence Community Action Plan.

They put up six billboards around the city which read: “The No. 1 cause of death among black teen-agers  is firearms.” For Dobbins, the key question is where are the guns coming from?

“We have a handgun issue,” Dobbins said. “They’re not being manufactured here. The most pervasive gun on the East Side of Buffalo is High Point firearms. The headquarters is in Mansfield, Ohio. They opened in the early Nineties, and when they opened, handguns — High Point firearms — flooded the East Side.

“They’re still in our community. You can buy a 9-millimeter for $99.”

Dobbins can recite chapter and verse on the issue. He has helped educate political leaders and law enforcement. Yes, the men who commit gun crimes need to be prosecuted. But the only way to cut down on gun violence is to stop the trafficking of guns into the community. 

Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot said recently that 60 percent of the guns in her city come from out of the state. Giles said it’s more like 80 percent in Buffalo. Dobbins said they mainly come from Ohio, Virginia and 10 other co-called “Iron Pipeline” states with much looser gun laws than New York and New Jersey.

“The vetting process to get a pistol permit here is unbelievable,” Dobbins said. “That makes us easy prey for states like Ohio. All you need is a driver’s license. You have to go through a National Instant Criminal Background Check. Fifteen minutes.”

So someone without a record, but ill intent, can buy a bunch of guns and take them across state lines to New York, where they wind up in the hands of young gang members in our impoverished inner cities.

Recently, the Buffalo Police Department received a $230,000 federal grant for a program called “Shoot Review,” based on a similar program in Milwaukee. Law enforcement partners will gather on a weekly basis to talk about shooting — fatal and non-fatal — in the city.

Dobbins calls it “all the same stuff warmed over.

“It’s centered on finding the shooters and locking them up,” Dobbins said. “Nothing was even mentioned about interdiction strategies to stop the guns from coming in to the city of Buffalo, or into the State of New York. That’s not even in their playbook.”

To Dobbins, it’s about interdiction — stopping the movement of illegal guns into the city. Flynn, who met with Dobbins, Giles and other community leaders early in August, sympathizes. But he appreciates the fact that Dobbins wants the shooters held accountable, too.

“He recognizes that there’s a problem with these guns coming in,” Flynn said. “But he also recognizes that someone’s pulling the trigger and you’ve got to deal with that. He’s not harping on me to be soft on these guys.”

What frustrates Dobbins is that the system is soft on the NRA-backed gun industry, which capitalizes on the fact that gun laws vary from state to state. The biggest obstacle to stopping the flow of guns into cities — and don’t get Neal started on this — is something called the Tiahrt Amendments. 

The Tiahrt Amendments, sponsored by former U.S. Representative Todd Tiahrt, a Kansas Republican, became law in 2003. It severely limited the ability of law enforcement to prosecute sleazy gun dealers and investigate gun crime. In effect, it protected the gun industry from lawsuits. 

Tiahrt’s amendments prohibit the ATF from releasing gun tracing data for use by the public; it requires the FBI to destroy gun purchase information within 24 hours; and it doesn’t require gun dealers to give  data on gun inventories to the authorities. 

It’s complicated. But police and the anti-gun crowd hate it, because it makes it close to impossible to track the illegal guns to their source.

“Now when these guns are found on the East Side, you can’t trace them back to their point of origin,” Dobbins said. “Because of that Tiahrt Amendment, their job is hard because they cannot trace it back to the last purchaser, to the last retailer.”

Dobbins believes the solution is interdiction strategies. In 2016, then-New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman produced a 50-page report on the issue, which detailed the flow of guns and suggested ways to stop the gun traffic. 

“I was so intrigued with it, I read it every day for two months,” Dobbins said. “My wife would tell me, ‘Go to sleep!’ I couldn’t believe, it was so interactive. You could hit on any city in the State of New York and it would show you where the guns were coming from.”

Flynn said he’s impressed with Dobbins’s dedication and knowledge of the subject. He said it’s still tough to fight the powerful gun lobby and the existing laws, but he told Dobbins there are things they can do.

“Let’s find out who these people are, and stop them before they cross the (state) border,” Flynn said. “But to do that, we need the feds’ help — the FBI and ATF — and to work with local law enforcement in other states. There’s definitely things we can do.

“I told Neal I’m all in and willing to help. Everyone in law enforcement agrees. In three and a half years here, I have not talked to one person in law enforcement who doesn’t want to get the guns off the street. Are we going to snap a finger and stop it overnight? No, but we can try.”

It would be great if Congress could repeal the Tiahrt Amendment. Dobbins took his case to Rep. Brian Higgins, who brought the issue to the floor of the House earlier this month. 

“We recognize that getting the Tiahrt amendment repealed is an arduous climb,” Pastor Giles said. “It’s going to depend on what happens in November. If we get the right combination in the Senate and the House, it’s going to get repealed immediately. Higgins isn’t alone.”

Laws can help. On the other hand, how much has truly changed in the last few years after Newtown, Parkland, Las Vegas, the Pulse Nightclub, the rising carnage in our cities?

“Let’s take it to the root and stop hacking at the leaves,” Dobbins said. “Let’s stop dealing with the acute symptoms. Let’s start dealing with the chronic issue. Kids are getting shot, particularly young black men. 

“You’re filling the prisons up with our young men for possession, and you’re not going to the root, where the guns are coming from.”

He gets frustrated. He calls it the frustration of high expectations that go unmet.  “My optimism is tempered with realism,” Dobbins said. “You can’t wear yourself out beating a dead horse.”

But he doesn’t have the luxury of giving up. Too many young lives are at stake. Someone needs to save them. How many times does a parent have to walk into a hospital and have a doctor tell him that this time, it was too late?

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