CHARLOTTE – It’s not Newtown, Conn., where a massacre at an elementary school galvanized the nation and spurred Washington to act. Nor has it become a symbol of gun violence like Chicago. In fact, last year in Charlotte, the number of homicides actually decreased to 52, the lowest number in 24 years.
But in a 2012 incident that echoes others around the country, a 17-year-old African-American boy here was shot and killed after another teen thought the victim disrespected him in front of a girl. The five young black men charged in his murder were teenagers as well.
So officials and community leaders here are closely watching the national debate over reducing gun violence. And when asked about the president’s proposals, which include a ban on assault weapons, universal background checks and limits on high-capacity magazines, they praise the ideas, but emphasize those are only a partial solution.
“Yes and no,” Charlotte mayor Anthony Foxx told me in an interview Monday when I asked if the president’s proposals would reduce gun violence in his city. “Clearly the concept of banning assault weapons could play a role in some of the gang-related activity, and strengthening the background checks could play a role in limiting access to violent offenders or potential violent offenders.”
“But there’s also an element of culture that’s involved here. We can’t leave out mental health issues; we can’t leave out issues like the entertainment industry and the violence that gets perpetuated there,” he added. “I do think there’s a role for parents and neighbors and ministers and all of us who interact with our young people to help create a culture of respect, a culture in which violence is shunned…. The reality is it’s a multi-tiered problem that requires multi-tiered approaches. There’s no law you can pass that’s going to stop it. There’s no amount of control that a public organization can exert that will fool-proof us from this kind of violence.”
On the day that he asked for council and community support for development projects to help struggling neighborhoods in his “State of the City” address, Foxx said, “The work we do to promote economic opportunity in our urban areas is vitally important in pointing a way for kids who ingest this kind of nihilism that damages their psychology and ultimately damages communities. If they don’t have a sense of hope and investment in their futures, ultimately that’s a problem for all of us.”
Through Mothers of Murdered Offspring, the Charlotte-based organization she co-founded 20 years ago, Judy Williams said she sees the “communities devastated, the families devastated” with every killing. Williams gave up the weapon she used to own, preferring to “place my faith in God’s hands, instead of a gun.” The group holds candlelight vigils — she called them “outdoor support meetings” — honoring victims and comforting survivors. “
“They give people a way to vent so that hopefully they won’t turn to something else,” Williams said. “Everybody in the crowd keeps telling young people to put your gun down; if you’re mad at people, go talk to them. Violence starts in the mind.”
When the NRA held its annual conference in Charlotte in 2010, the Williams’ group held a mock funeral procession, with a casket covered with the names of those killed. Though Williams said she still needed to study all the provisions of the president’s gun proposals, she said believes in “whatever our government needs to do to make people more responsible if they purchase a gun. People take it much too lightly.”
Now that the violence has “gravitated down to the little children,” into the places people thought were “safe havens,” Williams said, “Americans are starting to open their eyes and see we have a problem.”
Reggie Singleton is an African-American health educator and mentor/director of Charlotte’s The Males Place, an African-centered, community-based manhood training program geared to “hard to reach” young black males between the ages of 12 and 18.
Though he describes Charlotte as more traditional, with “some stronger underpinnings” than some larger cities, Singleton said that in an effort to define themselves and feel good about themselves, some of the young men have adopted the negative stereotypes of the community.
“Amazingly, these young people have access to guns. They know where they can purchase guns. They know what guns cost,” he said.
He added, “I don’t know if many of the president’s initiatives are going to impact these young people. They’re getting these guns without background checks.” Last week Singleton’s 21-year-old great-nephew was shot in Charleston, S.C., he said, while selling drugs.
“It was just a waste — of talent, of gifts,” Singleton said.
Singleton supports President Obama’s efforts, but said he would also like to see additional action taken on traditional handguns, as they are used in most crimes, not the assault weapons Obama is trying to ban. Limits on handguns are of course a political non-starter.
Singleton also decried what he calls “abstract violence, the poor jobs, poor housing, poor schooling” that no gun bill can solve. Through The Males Place, he has taken the teens to Selma and Birmingham and Ghana, “exposing them to their own history,” he said. Singleton, married and the father of three teenagers himself, said he can’t depend on politics or gun laws to protect them. “In part that’s why I do what I do, to create a safe environment out there.”
Follow Mary on Twitter @mcurtisnc3