Gun control rally held in Harlem: Why we are marching

OPINION - Stronger background checks for guns and ammunition will keep weapons away from people who might sell them or use them for crime...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

“It don’t even make a difference, miss. It’s like I don’t even need to go to school or nothing because I’m just gonna die before I can finish.”

These were not the words of a terminally ill child, but of a healthy teenager I met on a summer night in Harlem not long ago. On July 4, 2012, a 21-year-old college graduate named Matt Shaw was killed by a stray bullet on Lexington Avenue. He was getting ready to go to graduate school in the fall. When I visited with some local high school students after his funeral, I found an utter lack of surprise.

Mayor Bloomberg likes to trumpet the latest declining crime numbers, but his words are no consolation for the 1,600 shootings that took place in 2012. Today I will join hundreds of activist groups, including the NAACP, for a rally in Harlem to support the NY SAFE Act. The law, signed into law just last month, is already under fire in the courts from weapon manufacturers. Similar legislation is struggling in Congress and other states. Today we hope to show that New York stands behind strong gun control, and that others should too.

I helped work on the SAFE Act, along with other community activists, when Governor Cuomo’s office reached out to us shortly after the Sandy Hook tragedy. As an NAACP activist and the Founder of Street Corner Resources at Harlem Renaissance High School, I work with children who live in high risk of gun violence. I believe that this legislation will help prevent more tragedies like the murder of Matt Shaw.

Stronger background checks for guns and ammunition will keep weapons away from people who might sell them or use them for crime. A new system for reporting stolen guns will give police a heads up when another weapon finds its way onto the streets. A more frequent renewal system for pistol permits will provide law enforcement with more complete information to do their jobs.

The fact is that we need to do something to something to stop the violence. The never-ending cycle of candlelight vigils, prayer circles and funerals takes its toll on our community. We burn candles at each memorial service. The kids hang tags with pictures of the deceased around their necks. Another mural, imploring peace and understanding, is painted on a peeling playground wall.

But the candles burn out, the pictures begin to fade, and the murals’ messages seem more futile with every passing gunshot. And I see the effect of these shootings every day. I speak with teenagers who join a gang because they see no other option. I try to teach children whose dreams of law school and medical school are replaced with the simple hope that they can live to graduate high school.

I will be joined at today’s rally by some of these young people. A group of students from Street Corner Resources came up with the idea to create a rap tribute to Governor Andrew Cuomo. They rapped over an auto-tuned “remix” of Governor Cuomo’s State of the State Address, where he first outlined the SAFE Act proposal.

Getting teenagers to care about state politics is hard enough. Getting them to feel like they can make a difference in their community is an incredible reward.

I will march today because I have seen firsthand how children respond to the chance to make an affirmative change in their lives. We cannot afford to let our teenagers give up their hope for a better life. We cannot afford to lose more young dreams to the nightmare of gun crime.

Iesha Sekou is founder of Street Corner Resources, a nonprofit organization based at Harlem Renaissance High School. Ms. Sekou is also the host of Street Corner Resources Live WHCR 90.3 FM.