Copyright: Amnesty International USA

Giving Baltimore a chance to live

By Shathera Little, AIUSA End Gun Violence Research Intern

Over the years, Baltimore has come to be recognized for its alarmingly high rates of homicide, a large percentage of which is due to gun violence. In 2017, 343 people were killed in Baltimore City, 88% of who were killed by firearms. As time continues, Baltimoreans continue to suffer from the impact that gun violence has on the city. Families continue to lose loved ones, children continue to be stripped of their opportunity to live, and community members continue to live in fear that they could be next.

Growing up, I was sheltered from the negatives that comes with living in Baltimore City. I was naïve to the senseless homicides and gun violence that were happening all around me. Even as I began transitioning into adulthood, it took me a while to comprehend the magnitude of this problem. I would receive news of new shootings almost every day and could sympathize with what I heard, but it was not until I experienced this type of loss for myself could I grasp what was actually happening.

I grew up an only child. The introvert in me loved having the alone time, but when I wanted to be around others, I had a plethora of cousins to spend time with. Among my cousins, I was the second oldest, and the only girl. We all grew up extremely close. We raced, played the game, fussed, fought, ate, did literally everything together. So, on October 1st 2017, when I received the news that my younger cousin was killed earlier that day, I was heartbroken.

It started out as a normal day. It was the first semester of my junior year at Rutgers University’s New Brunswick campus. After returning from class, I was lying on my bed in my on-campus apartment. I called my mom, something I did anytime I was in between classes, but this time it felt different. When I called, she immediately answered and said she was going to call me back and there was something she had to tell me. As the phone hung up, I remember being so curious about what she had to tell me. I began texting her phone, asking questions, until she called back about ten minutes later. When she called, the only thing I heard were people talking and crying in the background. My mother then told me that my younger cousin was shot and killed in broad daylight earlier that day. I remember a rush of emotions hitting me at once. I remember feeling numb because I did not know how else to feel. This was a tough pill for me to swallow. Although I knew that people were being murdered nearly every day in Baltimore, this was the first time it affected my family.

After receiving this disheartening news, I fell into deep thought. I had a hard time focusing in my classes because I was anxious to get home to my family. My other cousins began calling me looking for comfort and words of encouragement from their older cousin, but I was not even sure what to say. How could I comfort anyone else, when I was not sure how to comfort myself? Nothing I could say would change the fact that my seventeen-year-old cousin would not be able to live the rest of his life because of a trivial issue that could have been resolved in a different way. I was not sure how to carry on as if nothing happened.

As time went on, I developed a new outlook on death and realized the role that gun violence plays in Baltimore. You never know when it is your time, or if you will have the chance to see your loved ones again. It does not make sense for people to lose their chance at life because of senseless violence. My cousin’s death seemed to be the first of a series of deaths to follow; former classmates were killed, friends of my boyfriend, and family of my friends. Baltimore seems to be stuck in an ongoing cycle of violence that became normalized, even to children who are too young to understand what is going on.

No one should be fearful to enjoy their life. Or, feel obligated to tell a loved one to “be safe” whenever they attempt to leave the house or hang up the phone. We have the basic human right to life, meaning we should be able to live in freedom and feel safe. Gun violence is an issue in cities and towns across the United States, that is violating this human right. Kids are now scared to go to school, while others are scared to attend concerts or go to the movies. The mass shootings, school shootings, police violence, and shootings that stem from other criminal acts, have left many fearful to live their everyday life.

I came to intern at Amnesty International because they recognize that gun violence is a violation of our human rights. The end gun violence research team studies the issue of gun violence through multiple lenses, and conducts research in cities throughout the country. On July 11th, Amnesty International held an event in Baltimore for the launch of their Scars of Survival report. After the panel presented the report, there was a roundtable discussion for community members to offer potential solutions to gun violence. Several community members and organizations were in attendance, and shared about what actions they are taking to better this issue in Baltimore. I had the opportunity to learn about different local programs and initiatives that support families and survivors of gun violence. It was an eye-opening experience that introduced community members and organizations that are fighting the same cause.

As I wrap up my internship at Amnesty International, I thought it would be rewarding to build on the work that is being done in Baltimore. I created and distributed a short survey to ask community members what solution they would propose to reduce gun violence in the city. While each respondent agreed that gun violence is an issue in Baltimore, there were differences in opinion about what should be done to address this problem. When asked, “Do you believe more can be done to resolve the issue of gun violence in Baltimore City,” I received 5 types of responses and suggestions.

Most respondents stated that our accessibility to guns is the reason we see gun violence. Firearms can be purchased both legally and illegally. Guns can be purchased off the street for as low as $40. The greater the access people have to guns, the more tempted people will be to use them. These respondents stated that if we push for stronger gun laws, such as universal background checks, and policy changes, there may be a decrease in the amount of gun violence we witness today.

Other respondents stated that the way to reduce gun violence in Baltimore is by focusing on the children. Most of these respondents suggest that funding afterschool programs, and teaching children about gun violence in schools will be the best solution to prevent future violence. By doing this, children will be kept off the streets, and will learn the dangers of firearms and firearm violence. One of the respondents in this category suggested that if we want to see change, it is up to the parents. The respondent wrote, “If the parents’ guide their children and support their children, I believe the gun violence and other types of violence will be resolved. It starts at home. If parents are not able, then the community must help one another.”

Another group of respondents suggested that holding peace rallies and community get-togethers would be the best solution to address this problem. One of these respondents emphasized that a peace rally is not the same as a rally for anti- gun violence. The issue extends far beyond gun violence; it is a distrust within communities. By working to eliminate distrust within communities, we can bring everyone together and work stop the violence.

Of the respondents, only one person stated that they do not believe that more needs to be done to resolve the issue in Baltimore. The respondent explained their answer by stating, “Everyone knows it’s a problem and everyone wants to make it better and see improvement, but it’s just not happening. People just want to be violent.” This respondent explained that initiatives such as Safe Streets and Baltimore Ceasefire work extremely hard to unite communities and help at risk youth, but these efforts are disregarded by those that commit the violence. People must want to change.

Each suggestion that was given would be a great start to addressing this problem. Baltimore is a great city that has so much to offer its residents. If we all come together to pinpoint the cause of this violence and establish unity within our communities, we can make Baltimore a place that people are proud to call their home. The violence needs to stop. Life is too valuable and already so short. We need to give ourselves a chance to live.