I was in middle school the first time I saw a gun up close and personal. I was walking with a couple of high school friends in the neighborhood. Everyone lived blocks from each other. He pulled it out…not to show us but to express how he felt he needed protection. It wasn’t scary…it was reality.
I’ve had multiple family members shot and injured by guns before I was born. The results of the incidences left permanent damage that was and has been visibly noticeable throughout my entire life.
It was also in middle school when a friend who I saw weekly was shot and killed by neighborhood fire. I remember when it happened. The pain it brought upon his family. The disappointment from the community. The reality that you may not be gang affiliated but because of environment, you are wrapped in gang life by association. I remember him being in critical condition for some time and the look on his close friend’s face when they broke the news that he had passed. He was barely 16 years old.
June is Gun Violence Awareness Month. Based on records, in 2013 New York state became the first state to dedicate a month to gun violence awareness. In 2015, the National Gun Violence Prevent Day was created to partly honor Hadiya Pendleton, a Chicago teen who was shot and killed one week after appearing in President Obama’s second inaugural parade. Organizations across the nation plan events and #wearorange to increase awareness of the violence prevention movement.
As a youngster, I lived in neighborhoods that were marginalized, had gang involvement, had a plethora of liquor stores and were known as food desserts. At one house I lived in it wasn’t the safest to play outside, mingle with the neighbors, or even walk to the corner store. I remember my mom could sense when neighbors increased their propensity toward violence. She hustled hard to move my sister and I to a different area with the help of family friends. Within a week of us moving there was a drive-by on the block. While I always saw this as a close call for me, I often think about my peers who weren’t as lucky. Those that couldn’t move for various reasons. Those that experienced shootings, drive-bys, and homies dying on a regular basis.
I am a Social Worker and when deciding where I wanted to get my education I chose Chicago. For starters, I wanted to work with Black children and Chicago’s segregated neighborhoods provided plenty of opportunity. Secondly, Chicago is known to be the home of social movements. When I started my education, I watched the news everyday to get more acquainted with the city and its happenings. I noticed shootings and death by guns were reported daily; much different than my experience in Los Angeles. The first few months, I remember being shocked and sad for the city. I interned at an after-school program on the Southside where students from elementary to high school were peers to those I saw dead on the news. They were so traumatized and accustomed to gun deaths that their reaction was to make jokes, look at each other with sadness and break out in laughter then, reenact the scene. Some would talk about it for a few days and settle on the fact that it would happen again soon. There were no talking circles. No grief counselors. It was normal.
Much to my surprise it became normal for me. It was not until a student death garnered national attention and I began to get calls from outraged mentors in Atlanta, that it dawned on me that this life of hearing about gun violence and not reacting had become my normal too.
According to Everytown for gun safety “every day 100 Americans are killed with guns.” The Survey USA Market Research Study in 2018 found that “approximately three million American children witness gun violence every year.” In 2015, Finkelhor and others found that “58 percent of American adults or someone they care for have experienced gun violence in their lifetime.”
Earlier this month, the Guardian reported a 30% decline in homicides by gun in the Bay Area, particularly Oakland, Richmond, and San Francisco.
How did they do it? Reports show that they are approaching gun violence prevention through a public health lens. These cities are making improvements to housing and retail spaces. They are increasing access to support programs that do not involve law enforcement as well as, a “community-driven ceasefire policing strategy.” According to Everytown, Richmond is taking an interdisciplinary approach to reducing gun violence by involving “law enforcement, street outreach workers, and hospitals to engage with high-risk individuals and give them alternatives to gun violence.”
Gun violence is a public health issue. It is an issue that affects individuals, families, communities, and our nation. It impacts communities and color and increases risk for black men between the ages of 15–24 (Everytown, 2018). Gun violence can increase city costs and bring down the value of neighborhoods resulting in less money being available for marginalized communities.
It would make all the difference if we all participated in our own way in helping to reduce gun violence. We can help fund violence prevention programs. We can let our local politicians know the benefits of such programs in our neighborhood so gun violence prevention remains a priority. We can volunteer our skills and talents to local programs. Lastly, we can demand improvements to marginalized areas that have a lack of resources.
Gun violence is a public health issue.
Zaneta Smith coordinates operations of an African American civic engagement and public opinion research organization, the California Policy & Research Initiative. www.calpri.org