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As Virginia grapples with gun violence, school district seeks solutions

RICHMOND, Va. — In Virginia, where the annual number of firearm-related deaths paces the national average, black males are disproportionately the victims of gun-related violence. The state’s capital, Richmond, had the highest rate of gun-related homicides in the commonwealth each year between 2013 and 2017.

These stats aren’t lost on Richmond Public Schools, which recently hosted a gun violence prevention town hall.

RPS Superintendent Jason Kamras recalled when a student told him it had become normal to know someone who had been shot.

“That’s an incredible statement, but that’s from the words of our students,” Kamras said. “It’s the reality.”

Earlier this year, at least seven people were wounded in shootings on a single Saturday in Richmond within a week of back-to-back mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas.

Statewide last year there were 1,036 firearm-related deaths; of that total, 674 were suicides and 347 homicides, according to the Virginia Department of Health. Gun-related injuries accounted for 1,667 emergency room visits in 2018, the same data show.

In both categories, black males are the victims at much higher rates than females and white males.

The number of firearms used in homicides in Virginia increased overall in the 10-year period from 2008 to 2018.

Last year, 49 of Richmond’s 52 homicides involved a firearm. There were 202 aggravated assaults using firearms in 2018, a decrease from the 231 aggravated assaults using firearms in 2017.

Attendees held hands in an exercise in remembrance of loved ones lost to gun violence.

Attendees held hands in an exercise in remembrance of loved ones lost to gun violence.

Richmond leaders hope those numbers continue to decrease. The town hall Wednesday at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School focused on finding solutions and encouraged healing in a community beset by gun violence.

The crowd of about 100 included parents, students, city and state officials, educators and activists. Nearly every person in the room raised a hand when asked who had been affected by gun violence.

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney told a personal story of his first encounter with a gun. He recalls as a child finding his uncle’s pistol on his father’s dresser and wondering why a weapon was necessary. He said the response to gun violence cannot be politically convenient.

“I think we, collectively, we can design a future a whole lot better than the past we’ve been through,” Stoney said. “I want you to know I’m committed to that.”

Stoney introduced an ordinance to ban guns in city-owned buildings and public parks following the Virginia Beach mass shooting in May and the death of 9-year-old Markiya Dickson who was shot in a Richmond park over Memorial Day weekend. City Council passed the ordinance in July, but the symbolic measure cannot be enforced under state law.

Kamras also spoke on the impact of Dickson’s death and the emotional response he had seeing her casket at the funeral.

“I have no words,” Kamras said. “I can’t even imagine what that would be like if that was my son Ezra. It’s inconceivable, yet that is the reality for so many families.”

Manager of School Climate and Culture Strategy Dr. Ram Bhagat led 10 student volunteers in a call-and-response with government and school officials advocating for reducing gun violence.

Manager of School Climate and Culture Strategy Dr. Ram Bhagat led 10 student volunteers in a call-and-response with government and school officials advocating for reducing gun violence.

Gov. Ralph Northam called a special session of the General Assembly July 9 hoping to pass gun safety measures, but the session ended after just 90 minutes without voting on any proposed gun safety legislation.

Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, spoke of being frustrated by the political gridlock and a lack of legislative action. Bourne is running for reelection in the 71st District, against Libertarian Pete Wells.

Earlier this year, Bourne and Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Richmond, introduced HB 1644 requiring owners to report lost or stolen firearms, but it died in committee.

Other bills failed as well.

HB 2492, introduced by Del. Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax, also died in committee. The bill would have prohibited any person from “importing, selling, bartering, or transferring a firearms magazine designed to hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition.” A similar bill, SB 1748, was introduced by Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, and it also died in committee.

“I will tell you what you all know — that common sense ain’t common when it comes to gun violence reduction measures,” Bourne said.

Ram Bhagat, manager of school climate and culture strategy for RPS, helped lead the forum. He introduced speakers, gave a brief testimonial and led an exercise in which the audience clapped rhythmically and chanted “love,” “faith,” “justice” and “hope.”

Attendees wrote down ideas for strategies to reduce gun violence and some were shared with the audience.

Spartan Academy Executive Director Ray Strickland said something he sees working is group counseling, which gives students an opportunity to exist in a non-judgmental space.

“I think the first thing that we need to understand is having empathy,” said Strickland. “Before we can put different plans into place we need to be empathetic to what our students are going through.”

Kristin DuMont, with Moms Demand Action Richmond, said her organization is excited that leaders such as Stoney, Bourne and Kamras attended the event. The group MDA works to pass stronger gun laws through its nation-wide chapters.

“There are a lot of parents who’ve lost children and young people, who have lost friends,” DuMont said. “We want to support them and we want to make sure that this doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

By Susan Shibut, Capital News Service

Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students participating in the program provide state government coverage for Virginia’s community newspapers and other media outlets.

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