December 22, 2012

Tragedy spotlights grim urban reality

Those who have toiled years to reduce senseless shootings in cities finally hope to see action.

By JESSE WASHINGTON The Associated Press

For years, voices have cried in the urban wilderness: We need to talk about gun control.

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Pallbearers carry 4-year-old Roberto Lopez Jr.’s casket outside Our Lady of Angels Church in Los Angeles on Jan. 23, 2009. The boy was shot in the chest as he and his 5-year-old sister walked in a gang-plagued neighborhood. According to the Children’s Defense Fund, 299 children under the age of 10 were killed by guns in 2008 and 2009.

2009 File Photo/The Associated Press

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This Nov. 29, 2011, file photo shows a bullet hole in a window of a car at a liquor store parking lot in Oakland, Calif., after a shooting. A hail of gunfire along the Oakland street left eight people wounded, including a 1-year-old boy.

2011 File Photo/The Associated Press

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Yet the guns blazed on.

It took a small-town slaughter for gun control to become a political priority. Now, decades' worth of big-city arguments against easy access to guns are finally being heard, because an unstable young man invaded an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., with a military-style assault rifle and 30-bullet magazines. Twenty young children and six adults were slain.

President Obama called the tragedy a "wake-up call." Vice President Joe Biden met Thursday with Obama's Cabinet and law-enforcement officers from around the country to launch a task force on reducing gun violence. Lawmakers who have long resisted gun control are saying something must be done.

Such action is energizing those who have sought to reduce urban gun violence. Donations are up in some places; other leaders have been working overtime due to this unprecedented moment.

The moment also is causing some to reflect on the sudden change of heart. Why now? Why weren't we moved to act by the killing of so many other children, albeit one by one, in urban areas?

Certainly, Newtown is a special case, 6- and 7-year-olds riddled with bullets inside the sanctuary of a classroom. Even in a nation rife with violence, where there have been three other mass slayings since July and millions enjoy virtual killing via video games, the nature of this tragedy is shocking.

But still: "There's a lot of talk now about we have to protect our children. We have to protect all of our children, not just the ones living in the suburbs," said Tammerlin Drummond, a columnist for the Oakland Tribune.

In her column Monday, Drummond wrote about 7-year-old Heaven Sutton of Chicago, who was standing next to her mother selling candy when she was killed in the crossfire of a gang shootout. Also in Chicago, which has been plagued by a recent spike in gun violence: Aaliyah Shell, 6, was caught in a drive-by while standing on her front porch; and Tyquan Tyler, 13, was killed when a someone in a car shot into a group of youths outside a party.

Wrote Drummond: "It has taken the murders of 20 babies and six adults in an upper-middle class neighborhood in Connecticut to achieve what thousands of gun fatalities in urban communities all over this country could not."

So again: What took so long? The answers are complicated by many factors: resignation to urban violence, even among some of those who live there; the assumption that cities are dangerous and small towns safe; the idea that some urban victims place themselves in harm's way.

In March, the Children's Defense Fund issued a report titled "Protect Children, Not Guns 2012." It analyzed the latest federal data and counted 299 children under age 10 killed by guns in 2008 and 2009. That figure included 173 preschool-age children.

Black children and teens accounted for 45 percent of all child and teen gun deaths, although they were only 15 percent of the child and teen population.

"Every child's life is sacred and it is long past time that we protect it," said CDF President Marian Wright Edelman in the report.

It got almost no press coverage -- until nine months later, when Newtown happened.

Tim Stevens, founder and chairman of the Black Political Empowerment Project in Pittsburgh, has been focusing on urban gun violence since 2007.

In the days since the Newtown killings, Stevens has felt sadness, emotional turmoil -- and a bit of vindication at the new movement on gun control.

Stevens said America still would have been spurred to action if the Newtown victims had been black. He recalled the way that the Birmingham, Ala., church bombing during the civil rights movement, which killed four black girls, galvanized the nation in 1963.

"But in all honestly, because (Newtown) was a suburban, very small quiet town where normally people feel nothing happens, that does make some degree of difference," he said.

Drummond, the columnist, said in an interview that even many people who live in violent urban areas, which are predominantly black and Hispanic, have almost come to accept gun deaths.

At community meetings in her own East Oakland neighborhood, where a half-dozen people have been fatally shot in the past six months, Drummond has heard residents pose more questions about weed removal or gutter cleaning than stopping the violence.

"If a white cop kills a black man, there's this huge outcry. But when you have the vast majority of young black men being killed by other young black men, you don't get that kind of response," said Drummond, who is black.

"In order to look at that you have to look at yourself," she said. "You have to say, 'There are issues in this community.'"

Big cities have long dealt with the perception that gun violence is an urban problem. John Feinblatt, who works for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and is chief policy adviser for the Mayors Against Illegal Guns organization, said that Newtown has spurred action because of the age and number of victims, and that they were killed in school.

"There is no doubt that something has changed," Feinblatt said. "America's heart has been broken."

At the Violence Policy Center, a national organization that combats gun violence, an unprecedented surge of donations has arrived since the Newtown killings, as well as many emails from people asking how they could help, said Executive Director Josh Sugarmann.

Why hasn't this happened before, during decades of urban violence?

"There's an element of race to it," said Sugarmann, who has been working against gun violence since 1983. "There's a belief among all too many people about young black males, if you're shot you're in a gang or someplace you shouldn't be, or a bad kid doing things you shouldn't be doing. But in Chicago, there are reports of kids walking to school getting gunned down."

"The fact that these killings can't shape people's view that something needs to be done," he said, "is incredibly disturbing."

 

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