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Confronting gun violence in the nage

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Across the United States, said anti-gun advocate Shaina Harrison, “One child or teen dies every three hours from gun violence. It’s like having a Virginia Tech massacre every four days.”

That startling statistic was perhaps the most dramatic one shared during a town hall on gun violence held in the heart of Flatbush and sponsored by City Councilmember Kendall Stewart.

Speaking to the group gathered in the fellowship hall of the Church of the Nativity, 1099 Ocean Avenue, Harrison – who represented New Yorkers Against Gun Violence (NYAGV) at the event — dramatically described her experience of the issue.

A Red Hook resident, Harrison recalled walking to the corner store with her best friend, a football player, just a week before the two of them – both graduates of the Brooklyn School for Global Studies – headed off for college in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

They passed a group of people arguing, and someone in the group made a comment about the colors that her friend was wearing, Harrison recalled. “He denied it, and said he had every color in the rainbow,” she continued, “and he got into an argument with them.”

The upshot was that the group followed the two friends back to Harrison’s home. “Two guys became 10 guys,” she went on. “They shot him in front of my face. He didn’t die, but he never went to Bowling Green. Something so stupid just destroyed his whole life.”

Indeed, “Gun violence is a problem that affects all of us,” added Lance Ogiste, an assistant district attorney with the office of Kings County District Attorney Charles Hynes.

“I’ve had mothers come up to me and say, my son may have done some things that were wrong, but that person had no right to shoot him,” Ogiste recalled of his days as a prosecutor. “The only thing I’m asking from you, they said, is to give me some justice.”

Gun issues vary widely from neighborhood to neighborhood, noted Ogiste, though they overwhelming impact younger people.

For instance, he said, the DA’s office indicted 78 individuals arrested in East Flatbush’s 67th Precinct during 2007 for gun possession. Of those people, he noted, 20 percent were teens, 60 percent were under the age of 25 and 85 percent were younger than 30. “I’m told that is a typical breakdown,” Ogiste added.

There were far fewer gun possession indictments stemming from arrests in neighboring precincts, according to Ogiste. He told the group that there had been a total of 11 indictments in 2007 for gun possession in the 70th Precinct (Flatbush, Midwood and Kensington) and four in the 63rd Precinct (including Bergen Beach, Mill Basin, Flatlands, Marine Park, Georgetown, and Mill Island).

Putting the brakes on gun violence, stressed Harrison, means finding a way of getting young people involved.

“They’re the experts,” she contended. “They know why people shoot each other. I feel the only people who can change what’s going on in the community are the kids who are doing it.”

To that end, she said, NYAGV promotes programs that involve young people, from after school classes to youth councils to town halls, to speaker’s bureaus, where they teach the teens how to do public speaking.

The after-school program, which she teaches at Wingate High School, is particularly effective, Harrison opined, because it gives the young people who are involved the tools to make a difference. Last year, she said, they lobbied for the passage of legislation in Albany as well as creating brochures meant to dramatize the problem.

“One of my kids came in and was looking at numbers and was trying to come up with a statistic,” Harrison recalled. “I said, what makes the program real is that you know a person who died. That’s not a statistic.”

Another organization that seeks to reach out to young people is Real Solutions to Gun Violence. That group, said representative Lauren Mills, runs a 24-hour hotline, 1-866-SPEAK-UP, which teens can call “to report any weapons threats they may have heard about at school.” The counselors who answer the phone, Mills said, take the reports and forward them to the appropriate police department and school.

The hotline – which was founded not long after the shootings at Columbine –- is “completely anonymous,” Mills added. “We find that kids want to speak up but are afraid of retaliation and of being outcasts.”

But, anti-gun efforts should begin even earlier. It’s up to relatives, educators and the community at large to break the cycle, said Ogiste.

“Even before the Police Department makes arrests,” he contended, “it’s the responsibility of parents and teachers and the community to ask, ‘What are you doing carrying a gun? What is a 16-year-old doing with a handgun?’ If it means checking bags, checking a child’s room, checking drawers, to make sure there’s no gun in the house, that’s what you have to do.”

Members of the community and cops should be working hand in hand to conquer the problem, opined Stewart. “It’s not us versus them, in terms of us and the police,” he stressed. “We can assist them in resolving the problem, reducing crime, making the quality-of-life better in the district.”

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