We must act together to end gun violence in our community

By L. Robert Bolling

Not again. We’ve witnessed another senseless death of a child as a result of violence.

The recent events at the Huguenot High School graduation ceremony were devastating — seven gunshot victims, two of whom passed away and several with life-altering injuries. Shawn Jackson, 18, had just graduated. He was with his stepfather, Lorenzo Smith who also died as a result of the shooting.

Huguenot High School is one of the sites for ChildSavers school-based services. It is the location where we see the largest number of clients. Our collective heart aches for the families who lost loved ones, and for the children, families and staff of Richmond Public Schools. 

Today, and for the near future, our on-site therapists are reaching out to existing Huguenot clients and their families for safety checks as our Immediate Response therapists are on-call through our 24/7 hotline, providing a supportive response to those who were affected. We have already seen a significant increase in calls to our hotline. We are working closely with our partner, Richmond Public Schools, to engage with their Family Support Center and provide additional resources as necessary.

This nightmare of violence and death is leaving a legacy of trauma, grief, and gut-wrenching pain for too many families. One child dead from gun violence is far too many. We must act. 

We can no longer close our eyes or turn our backs. Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras’ words at an initial press conference were poignant, “This just needs to stop.

This type of tragedy cannot define normal for greater Richmond. Imagine if this was your child shot dead on their graduation day. What would you do? What would you want to happen so no one else ever has to feel the pain of that loss? 

We owe it to each of the families who experienced this type of loss to change the path of escalating violence and death into one where every person can live and thrive. Our prayers, well-wishes and support gathering for those impacted by this needless trauma are appropriate and provide a level of support. Yet they are woefully insufficient to stop the death.

This is our moment to turn the tide. But we must attempt to understand the root of the problem.

The causes of gun violence are complex. These root issues did not start overnight, and they will not be solved overnight, but we must acknowledge the factors contributing to this escalating violence among our youth.

Many of our communities in Richmond have experienced decades-long cycles of poverty, criminalization, and disinvestment. Our children have witnessed and experienced trauma from a young age. They live in low-opportunity areas, ones where access to education, healthcare, and jobs are limited. They go to under-resourced schools, and their parents and guardians confront the same structural and socioeconomic barriers to prosperity. The social media age is impacting our children’s mental health in ways researchers do not yet fully grasp, but that is causing increased rates of anxiety, depression, and suicidality among youth. Combine those factors with the ready availability and access of firearms in our community, and it becomes a pressure cooker for violence.

We can lower the pressure and correct the course for our community’s children by focusing on three areas. Each can be divisive points for many of us and often raise the ire so that we are unable to reason, or even hear the voice on the other side of the debate. Still, we must do this:

  • Create economic opportunity and prosperity for all our communities, and particularly Black and Latino communities with histories of disinvestment.
  • Strengthen our community-based mental health support and care.
  • Address the ready availability of guns in our community.

Economic prosperity

Richmond is a growing region that is attracting new arrivals to complement those of us whose families have lived here for generations. This new energy combined with the strength of “from here” citizens brings innovations in business and new amenities for personal and family enjoyment. It also exacerbates existing challenges for our community, like affordable housing and disparity in economic prosperity. The Richmond region’s history of racial residential segregation still leaves a visible imprint on the demographics of our neighborhoods and access to socioeconomic opportunity. We must envision a Richmond region that works for everyone.

Creating new opportunities means we must think differently about how and where we incentivize economic development. On a recent InterCity visit to Kansas City with ChamberRVA, we learned that the build out of the $1.5 billion new airport included intentional involvement of vendors of color. During one panel discussion, the general contractor and a Black subcontractor advanced tools like improved terms to pay sooner and better interest rates on loans for capital to make it possible for the subcontractor to participate in the project. This not only helped the subcontractor with the airport project but established a foundation of quality work that could be used to go after the next project. 

It’s a great idea that could be applied to Richmond and expanded upon. We could be a leader in this area and build investment in education into big and small economic development packages. That might look like this: Developers get tax breaks, and as part of the project build a replacement school for the locality, or fund teacher’s salaries for a couple of years. 

These economic development opportunities must be done in collaboration with and in the service of our most disinvested communities, like the ones that send students to Huguenot, Wythe and Armstrong High Schools. As the saying goes, a chain is no stronger than its weakest link. We build a more prosperous Richmond region by ensuring opportunity for all.

Community mental health support

Today’s public policy recognizes mental well-being as a critical health care issue in the country. We have seen in children an increase in anxiety, depression, isolation, and harm to self and others. Mental Health America ranks Virginia 48th in the nation for the rate of youth mental health challenges and access to care. Our kids are not okay. They are hurting.

Recent efforts have focused on expanding adult inpatient care, particularly hospital-based beds, improving access to help during mental health crises, and growing the behavioral health workforce. These efforts are to be applauded but more is necessary to achieve a system of care that supports all of us, especially children.

In the case of child mental health, and particularly outpatient services and crisis care during times like a shooting, it is the community-based providers that are delivering much of the care without adequate funding or payment for services. Providers like ChildSavers are invested in communities and schools where children live and are educated as they experience toxic trauma and face a lack of resources. Let’s prioritize and invest deeply in these places and those providers.

Access to guns

This issue causes us to attack and hurl insults at one another as we argue the right to own firearms for collection, sport and protection versus the use of weapons with the intent to commit crime and cause harm. Yet, the simple fact that guns exist and are available to the general public makes death by firearm possible. Statistically speaking, the more firearms that exist in a society, the more gun deaths there are. It is inevitable. 

We will never eliminate firearms in America. There are just too many, especially when the number of guns outnumber the population of our country. Yet, we must stem the tide of firearms flowing into our country and into our hands, and our children’s.  

I ask that we reframe the issue: How do we stop the unlawful access to and possession of firearms? How do we stop them from getting into the hands of our community’s children? Some of the answers exist today in current gun laws. Store unloaded guns and ammunition separately in locked cases. Limit access to guns by those experiencing mental health issues. Require training and registration before the completion of the gun purchase. Require registration for firearm purchases. These are easy and effective methods to reduce violence. I realize that some may consider these examples unrelated to or too simplistic for a complex issue. But every action to limit unlawful firearm possession saves lives. Our children depend on it. 

The harder actions, like banning weapons, cause us to retreat to our embedded views. No one has come up with a solution to stop the flow of illegal guns that usually end up maiming or killing someone. We have to find answers by believing and acting to rid our community of these guns.

We must do this for the benefit of our children and the entire community. We may not all agree on what needs to be done, but we all know that something must be done.

These are truly difficult and unbearable times that will no doubt leave a legacy of pain for families directly impacted, and for children and adults across our community. Let’s begin now to change this trajectory.

L. Robert Bolling is the Chief Executive Officer at ChildSavers, a 99-year-old nonprofit agency that provides child mental health and child development services. During his tenure ChildSavers has expanded its reach from a local agency to one that has footprints in two-thirds of Virginia and serves 35,000 children.

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