Commentary

Curbing killings also means changing culture

July 21, 2021 12:05 am

Police and paramedics work the scene of a shooting that wounded two people, including a 7-year-old, last month in Richmond’s East End. (NBC12)

Anti-violence groups in the commonwealth, spurred on by a national organization started by former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, have staked a claim for tens of millions of dollars in federal pandemic and economy-boosting money at the General Assembly’s disposal.

The fledgling Virginia Community Violence Coalition has made a smart, critical bid for $37 million of the $4.3 billion available from the American Rescue Plan. The state’s homicide rate hit a 20-year high in 2020, and the coalition of gun-control groups, community activists and health providers want to deter potential killers – as well as keep people from becoming victims in the first place. 

State legislators will decide how to allocate funding at a special session in August, my colleague Graham Moomaw wrote this week in a comprehensive article on gun violence in Virginia. The coalition is urging lawmakers to make targeted investments in cities where homicides have spiked. 

“The community-based violence intervention and prevention strategies that we implement and support,” the coalition said in a letter to General Assembly members, “have demonstrated success at interrupting entrenched cycles of violence, victimization, and retaliation, using a public health approach.”

This effort, however, won’t get very far unless community activists, parents and politicians can disrupt a culture in which some young men have no respect for human life; are too quick to use firearms to settle disputes – from drugs, to road rage, to claims of “disrespect”; and simply don’t care whether bystanders are caught in the crossfire.

Most homicides are intraracial in the United States, meaning the victims and suspects are of the same race. You can’t discuss slayings in this country, though, without noting that African-Americans and Latinos are disproportionately represented as both suspects and victims

I’m reminded of a sobering comment the police chief of a Midwestern city told me nearly 30 years ago, when I was a reporter at the Detroit Free Press. 

“I came from a one-parent family, but my whole block was my family. I couldn’t go down the block and raise hell without getting whipped” by neighbors, David Wade, the top cop in Gary, Ind., said in 1992. “Now, there’s no respect among adults or children. There’s no love. 

“If we loved each other, we couldn’t kill each other like we do.”

His comments have haunted me over the decades. And little seems to have changed since then. 

Black men, in particular, kill and injure using firearms with chilling regularity. If society in all its forms — families, government, churches, neighborhoods and community groups — can’t get a handle on this, what will change?

That doesn’t mean the Virginia community anti-violence coalition, which started this year, shouldn’t try. Its participation is essential, in fact. Mike McLively, community violence initiative policy director at the Giffords Law Center, helped organize the coalition in the commonwealth, as Giffords staffers have done in other states. 

Then-Rep. Giffords was shot in the head and seriously wounded in 2011 during a constituent event in Tucson, Ariz., that killed six and injured a dozen other people. She later co-founded the anti-gun violence organization that bears her name.

“Day-to-day shootings and community violence are a major driver of overall gun violence,” said McLively, who is a University of Virginia law school graduate. He told me the coalition has been in contact with the administration of Gov. Ralph Northam about the coalition’s bid for support. 

 A gubernatorial spokeswoman told me by email Tuesday the administration is reviewing funding requests as the special session approaches. “Community-based efforts are certainly a part of these discussions,” she said, and confirmed the coalition has reached out to administration officials.

When it comes to gun violence, an absence of concern for others isn’t the only contributing factor. 

Norfolk Police Chief Larry Boone has repeatedly criticized the fact that it’s so easy for people to get firearms, and then hard to track those guns afterward. He’s also noted the young age of both victims and shooters in recent years. 

Not enough things for young people to do is a problem, said Susan Fincke, executive director of Friends of the Portsmouth Juvenile Court and a coalition member. “We need youth employment and skill development programs. … Kids need to be able to see a future.’’

Poverty, struggling schools and substandard housing are often linked to high-crime areas. 

Extremist gun-rights groups haven’t helped, either, particularly the National Rifle Association. Intransigence to new gun regulations makes it too easy for some people to buy or obtain firearms, including the mentally unstable. 

News stories around the commonwealth reveal the agonizing, ongoing carnage:

  • Police arrested a 14-year-old boy in the shooting of a man Sunday in Norfolk. “Where were the adult leaders in this young man’s life? This could have been prevented but now, it’s too late. We have failed him,” Chief Boone said on Twitter.
  • Random gunfire in Richmond early on Father’s Day killed Da’Vonta McLaurin, a young father himself
  • Three shootings in Portsmouth on Sunday left a man dead and three other people wounded, including a young boy, police said. 
  • Authorities in King George County said a 31-year-old man was shot several times and died early Monday at a trailer park in the county, the Free Lance-Star reported

I could compile a similar list from Virginia every week.

The coalition’s work definitely can help fight the killing. It’s warranted. The General Assembly should enlist the coalition’s community groups, hospitals and other organizations. 

Yet, unless we all tackle this horrible disdain for human life, and the rancid eagerness to settle disputes by gunfire, the coalition’s efforts can only go so far.

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]

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