Gabriel Clarke was certainly not the catalyst for renewed White House and State House efforts on gun control. But the measure of success for new laws is how many fewer Clarkes end up in hospitals and morgues. As the 13-year-old continues to recover in a hospital after being shot in the stomach while walking to choir practice in Roxbury two weeks ago, local ministers who have dealt with violence for years wonder if the nation really understands the task at hand.
“It strikes me as interesting that the president is reacting because 20 kids were killed in Connecticut,” said Jeffrey Brown, executive director of Boston’s Ten Point Coalition. “But Chicago has had how many kids killed?” Indeed, in the 2011-12 school year, 24 Chicago public schools students were killed and 319 were wounded.
“I deal in that kind of violence every day,” Brown continued. “It’s going to take more than nips and tucks in legislation to stop that kind of violence.”
Pastor John Borders of Morningstar Baptist Church said he took it seriously when President Obama signed executive orders on Wednesday to study gun violence and tighten background checks, but added, “The only way we can change is if the American people demand it.” He has penned a letter in this Sunday’s church program urging every member of his congregation to contact their legislators about getting guns off the streets.
“If we’re serious, we’re looking at a five-to-10-year campaign,” Borders said. “No lobbying group like the NRA ought to have that kind of lobbying power that makes them more important than national public safety.”
That is, of course, the quest — to make public safety more important than gun money. That priority has never been a question for the most of the people served by black clergy in Boston and beyond. African-American and Latino support for gun control runs as high as 83 percent in major polls, compared with as little as a third of white men and half of white women. White support has edged up since the massacre last month of 20 first graders in Newtown, Conn., which happens to be more than 90 percent white.
Obama himself clearly understands the unspoken racial gulf, subtly addressing it Wednesday by noting not just the massacre-style violence in Oak Creek, Wis.; Clackamas, Ore.; Aurora, Colo.; Columbine, Colo.; and Newtown; but also the singular, bullet-at-a-time wasting of “kids on street corners in Chicago.” The most difficult and unspoken part of the new effort on gun control is whether all death is treated equally, so all neighborhoods can be equally renewed with a feeling of safety.
Brown, whose coalition helped dramatically reduce youth violence in the 1990s, said he approves of Governor Deval Patrick’s proposal to limit gun purchases to one a month. But he is skeptical about state efforts to limit guns when it is easy to get guns in other Eastern states. He and Borders said any effective restrictions on gun purchases and the style of weapons that can be purchased have to be nationwide, passed by Congress.
Brown also said he is waiting to see Obama’s proposal for community grants to reduce gun violence. “Addressing mental health is important, assault weapons is a no-brainer, and background checks may have bipartisan support,” Brown said, “but when you talk to Gabriel’s mother, it’s about opportunities and changing attitudes and the hearts and minds of the kids who think violence is a solution.”
Borders is also wondering about the reach and the staying power of the new gun-control campaign. “I don’t know how many witnesses I would need to provide to the NRA to plead with them to put peace before politics,” he said. “But I have at least 50 — the 50 that I’ve buried from gun violence.”
If voices like Borders’ are heard, and the shootings of the Gabriel Clarkes of America’s inner cities are taken as seriously as those of the children in Newtown, then this new gun control push just might have a chance.
Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.