By Marian Wright Edelman
“Dear President Obama . . .
Guns are really easy to get and people think they need them to protect themselves, but most times they’re showing off and making more problems and adding to the violence… 7 people are too many to lose and I don’t want to see another one of my friends, or even myself gone. We need a change.”
In mid-July, students at Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools summer enrichment sites across the country participated in a National Day of Action. The Freedom Schools program seeks to empower children to know that they are not just citizens in waiting. We want them to grow up knowing that they can and must make a difference in their homes, schools, communities, nation, and world.
Many wrote letters this summer to President Obama, members of Congress, and local officials sharing their beliefs about gun laws and personal experiences with gun violence. Some were inspired by the March 2013 Washington Post Magazine article “What’s Your Number?” which asked readers how many people they knew who had been killed or injured by guns.
The youths who wrote the letters like the one above had more experience than most. They are all boys between 15 and 20 years old who attend the Maya Angelou Academy at the New Beginnings Youth Development Center just outside Washington, D.C., one of six juvenile justice facilities across the country that have joined colleges, community groups, faith networks, public schools, municipalities, and dozens of other organizations hosting Freedom Schools sites.
Many of the boys at New Beginnings come from high-poverty neighborhoods saturated with gun violence. As their Freedom Schools site coordinator Chelsea Kirk says, “Gun violence is not just something we talk about lightly at the Academy; in fact gun violence and the effects of gun violence are very real in the lives of our scholars… In addition to the letters, our scholars recorded the total number of people they have lost to gun violence in their lives. The numbers speak for themselves.”
In two dozen letters, their litany went on: “My cousin died from a gun.” “My friend got killed.” “My uncle got shot.” “My little brother got shot.” An even sadder message quietly emerged in some of the letters: while most were clear about the terrible impact of guns on their friends and families, several of the boys now believe that getting their own gun was the only way they could make themselves feel safer.
One student who said he was at New Beginnings because of weapons charges explained his feelings this way: “I was carrying my gun because I had to protect myself from being shot. I’m a very smart young man, you can ask my teachers, my friends, and my family, and I plan to have a great future. But, first I must make it through the present.”
These students are a very small example but too many children across the country feel the same way. In a nation with 315 million people and 310 million guns, urban neighborhoods are not the only communities overflowing with guns and teenagers in inner-city D.C. are not the only children who believe there are so many guns in our country they might need one too in order to survive.
And what message did it give these students when Trayvon Martin, a teenager who looked a lot like them and was not carrying a gun, was followed, shot, and killed by an adult while doing nothing wrong and the adult was set free? Unless we want to give up and agree that the only way to survive our nation’s gun violence crisis is for every adult, teenager, and child in America to own a gun, we need to provide common sense solutions like universal background checks and a ban on high capacity ammunition magazines — now.
Our children are afraid for their friends, their families, and themselves. They know something needs to change. But they can’t get there without us — and they certainly can’t get there by arming themselves with still more guns.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund.