Youth Justice


Over a 48-hour period this Memorial Day weekend, 21 people were shot in New York City, six fatally. A gunman opened fire on a crowd in a shopping district in Queens and wounded five people. A 15-year-old was killed while leaving a party in Manhattan. A 13-year-old boy and a 15-year-old girl were wounded in Harlem.

This spring frenzy of gun violence has not been limited to New York.  Other cities have experienced a similar rash of shootings. In one weekend in June, 14 people were shot to death in Los Angeles County. The police attributed the violence to gang activity. During the early morning hours of May 24, three men were shot to death in Philadelphia. Each was the victim of multiple bullet wounds. In the last weekend in May, seven people were killed and three were wounded in the District of Columbia in just nine hours. In a city where homicides had been on the decline in recent years, the number of D.C. murders surpassed the previous year’s mark for May. A rash of shootings earlier this year caused the District’s police chief to call a virtual “all hands on deck” alert to put as many officers on street duty as possible as a deterrent to more gun violence.

Regardless of whether the shootings were motivated by a gang rivalry, revenge or an unwelcome glance at someone else’s girlfriend, the rampant gun violence plaguing our nation must stop. To do something about this scourge, we have to address its causes. There are more than 200 million privately owned firearms in the United States. Too many of these guns have ended up in the wrong hands. Congress’s refusal to extend the Assault Weapons Ban didn’t help. Since the ban expired in 2004, the number of deaths among children and teens from firearms increased for the first time since the ban was enacted in 1994. The June 26th Supreme Court ruling to strike down Washington, D.C.’s handgun ban dealt yet another blow to securing our children’s safety from gun violence.

Putting a police officer on every street corner is not feasible and resorting to repressive measures would be abhorrent. But there are things we can do. Those who own guns should remove them from their homes so they are out of the reach of children and irresponsible adults. We don’t need to read any more newspaper accounts like the one on June 9 when a 4-year-old girl in Columbia, South Carolina, pulled a gun from her grandmother’s handbag and shot herself in the chest. We must urge Congress to impose common sense restrictions on the purchase and availability of firearms. Forty percent of all guns in the United States are purchased without a background check, including those bought at gun shows. Congress must enact legislation that closes the gun show loophole by requiring criminal background checks on those who purchase guns from unlicensed dealers.

There are a number of community-based models that can be replicated like the Boston Ten Point Coalition, an ecumenical Christian community, which achieved a 30-month moratorium on juvenile gun violence in that city. It focuses on developing Black and Latino youth, especially those at risk of violence, drug abuse and other destructive behaviors. The organization provides counseling in schools on peer conflict and gang mediation. Much of the group’s work is done through home visits. In addition to faith institutions, the coalition includes community organizations, government agencies and local businesses.

The toxic elements of popular culture that celebrate violent behavior through the powerful media of music, movies and television are major contributors to the rise of gun violence. To counter the constant stream of brutal images our children witness daily, we must arm them with nonviolence strategies on how to resolve conflicts.

Each of us must do more to personally instill in our own children the values that will lead to the creation of safe communities. We need to mold them into healthy adults who are brought up with love, self-confidence and a generous spirit. As I’ve mentioned before, we need to bring back “Cradle Rolls” when a child born to anyone in our church community was immediately placed on this special list, and members of the congregation were responsible for following these children until they reached the “age of accountability.” We need to extend the Cradle Roll to all our communities. And we need to enact common sense gun control measures.

The rise of gun violence in our communities is serious and dangerous, but we don’t have to stand by as mere witnesses. We can do something about it. We must take action now to curb the threat that firearms pose to our nation.  Too much is at stake. We cannot allow these shots to go unheard.