More than a dozen children have died from gun violence in St. Louis this year. The deaths were at the heart of a town hall meeting at Harris-Stowe State University on Wednesday night.
The Board of Aldermen's black caucus and U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay, D-University City, called for immediate action from the federal level to combat gun violence against children.
“Gun violence is a public health emergency,” Clay said.
About 500 people attended the event, including community members, St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, members of the St. Louis region’s NAACP chapters, local organizations for mothers, human rights groups, government officials and law enforcement agents.
Before the event started, audience members were eager to take part in the discussion on gun violence. Some began livestreaming the event and highlighting what they were looking forward to during the talk, while others held framed photos of loved ones who were killed by gun violence.
The meeting was led by a panel including Clay and five others: St. Louis Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards; Alderman Jeffrey Boyd, D-22nd Ward; St. Louis Police Chief John Hayden; Christine Novalis, a volunteer with the Missouri chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America; and Dr. Mark Hoofnagle of the Washington University School of Medicine.
“This is a community issue, and it will be better as we work together as a community,” Boyd said.
He added that the town hall should offer up impactful solutions to stopping gun violence in St. Louis.
As Clay approached the podium he said, “The nation and the community has reached a tipping point.”
Comfort and action
Clay said he came to speak not only as a congressman but also as a father. He offered condolences to the families of the slain children and let the community know that he is putting action behind his words of comfort.
He spoke about his bill, the Local Public Health and Safety Protection Act. The measure would allow municipalities to enact their own gun laws.
The bill, HR 3435, was introduced to the House in June and is co-sponsored by over 20 congressmen, including Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, D-Kansas City; Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Massachusetts; and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York.
“We need Congress to act now,” Clay said. “Congress has the power to save American lives, and we should be doing nothing less.”
When it comes to gun violence, Clay said he is tired of the excuses from state legislatures and those who will not do anything about it because they are afraid of the National Rifle Association.
Clay asked the audience to read and sign constituent petition forms addressed to U.S. Sens. Roy Blunt and Josh Hawley, both Missouri Republicans. The forms stated that the signee agrees with encouraging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, to pass HR 8, the Bipartisan Background Checks Act, and HR 1112, the Enhanced Background Checks Act.
'Our time to rise up'
After Clay made his remarks, the fired-up aldermanic President Lewis Reed excited the crowd with his own speech. He shared that he, too, has family members who were affected by gun violence and that each time he sees another child’s life taken due to gun violence, his heart aches.
“I know it’s some things we all can be doing and things Republicans can be doing to help us get to the bottom of this,” Reed said. “We are going to have to push them and drive them to some place where they are uncomfortable being.”
Reed also endorsed Clay’s new bill and said it can be something to transform the nation.
“St. Louis, this is our time to rise up and show this nation what change looks like,” Reed said.
During his speech, Reed questioned Republican lawmakers, asking: “How can you value the family if you don't value the lives of everybody in the family? And how can you value the family if you don’t value the kids that are getting shot dead on the streets of St. Louis while you protect the gun lobbyists?”
Before he took a seat, he reminded community members that they have power and to use their voices.
Krewson said at the event that the city does not have to accept this level of violence and urged the community to support Clay’s bill.
A request denied
Besides questioning Republican lawmakers, state officials like Rep. Steve Roberts, D-St. Louis, the chairman of the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus, sent a letter to Gov. Mike Parson on Aug. 24, in which he requested the governor add the St. Louis gun violence crisis to his upcoming General Assembly special session agenda.
Parson rejected the request and will not add the crisis to the upcoming special session or call a separate special session to discuss gun violence in St. Louis.
“While the issue of how to reduce violence in our urban areas certainly needs to be addressed, there are also many different opinions on how to find a solution,” Parson said in a statement. “However, special session is not the correct avenue. If we are to change violent criminal acts in Missouri, it will take all of us at the federal, state, local, and community levels working together toward that common goal.”
Saving children’s lives
Edwards read a list of the homicides and nonfatal shootings in St. Louis so far in 2019. The city has documented 134 homicides this year and 1,651 nonfatal shootings.
During the question-and-answer portion of the meeting, the panel heard from community members.
One woman from the city said she lost five people in two days and is ready to take her city and neighborhood back. She angrily urged people to help the police in stopping the gun violence.
Another woman suggested bringing resources back to disenfranchised communities to actively engage kids to be significant contributors to the city.
Most of the questions and suggestions were directed to Hayden. He responded with concern and said he is listening and acting swiftly to curb gun violence in all of St. Louis.
Andrea Y. Henderson is part of the public-radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Portland, Oregon. Follow Andrea at @drebjournalist.
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