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Making a difference: Efforts to end gun violence in Grand Rapids

For many activists in Grand Rapids, “thoughts and prayers” going out to gun violence victims and those close to them are not enough. These citizens have chosen to add protest, action, education, and organization to tackle the shootings that have devastated families across the city, state and country.
Another day. Another shooting. An ordinary day in the United States of America. In 2014, there were almost 34,000 people killed by guns in the United States, according to GunPolicy.org, an international firearm injury prevention and policy organization. Two hundred-eighty people were killed in mass shootings.

In Michigan there were 6,729 gun deaths between 2008 and 2013, according to the most recent data available from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. About half of these were suicides. In Kent County, there were 229 deaths from firearms during the same time period. Look in almost any week's issue of the Grand Rapids Press, and there’s sure to be at least one reported shooting in our community. 

These statistics are facts. The deaths behind the statistics are devastating. Mothers have lost their sons. Wives have lost their husbands. Children have lost their parents. Families, friends and communities have been rocked by the loss of loved ones.

For many activists in Grand Rapids, “thoughts and prayers” going out to victims and those close to them are not enough. These citizens have chosen to add protest, action, education, and organization to thoughts and prayers.

Lamont Cole, Director of Education for the Urban League of Grand Rapids, says his organization "is working with the police department, the city of Grand Rapids and organizations throughout the community to effect change. We realize that guns too often end up in the hands of young people within the urban community and lead to dire consequences. Part of our mission is to insure the safety of our community. We want people to be safe and to understand the responsibilities of gun ownership and the unfortunate outcome when these responsibilities are ignored. Understanding that gun violence disproportionately affects people of color, we will continue our efforts for all citizens.”

Grand Rapidians Teresa Ward and Darnella Powell founded Mothers Against Street Killings (MASK) in 2005 after the death of an 18-year-old young man who was the nephew of Ward and the son of Powell. The group organized a city-wide peace march that drew a large crowd. Since then, they have worked with other organizations to bring awareness and attention to the costs of gun violence.

“We work to promote love, peace and unity in the community through Stop the Violence events," Ward says. "We are aware that MASK will not be able to stop the violence, but if we are able to prevent even one act, we know that two lives have been saved—one from the grave and one from the legal system.”

A revitalized Moms Demand Action-West Michigan held its first event in December, on the anniversary of the Sandy Hook massacre. A silent vigil and candlelit march from Fountain Street Church to Rosa Parks Circle was preceded by an event at the church, which was attended by close to 200 people. They heard from Mary Alice Williams, a long-time community activist; Dr. Erica Michiels, Associate Medical Director of DeVos Children’s Hospital Emergency Medicine; Jerline Riley, who founded Mothers on a Mission, a survivor network, after she lost her son to gun violence; and the Women’s Chorus of Grand Rapids.

Other events have included an informational session for parents on protecting their children from gun violence; Moms Demand Action's “care-in," at the Fountain Street Church, where participants wrote cards and letters expressing support and sorrow to the citizens of Kalamazoo after a recent mass shooting there; and a presentation of the movie “3 ½ Minutes, 10 Bullets," a documentary about a killing in Florida during which a man, angered by loud music, shot into a car carrying four unarmed youth, killing one of them, 17-year-old Jordan Davis.

“We want reasonable measures taken that will protect our children and all families throughout the country from gun violence," Moms Demand Action spokesperson Annie VandenBerg says. "Gun violence is increasing throughout Michigan and the United States, and we need to make changes that will decrease the incidence of death and destruction caused by guns. We value the Second Amendment, but we also value the lives of all Americans."

“Members of Moms Demand Action are available to make presentations to community groups concerning gun safety," she continues. "Our goal is to educate the public, advocate for common sense gun laws and make our country safer.”

Natalie Pochert, the coordinator of the local chapter of Moms Demand Action, says her organization "will continue to support legislation for reasonable, responsible gun control in the hopes that other families won’t have to go through the loss of a loved one. As the national chapter says, ‘This is a marathon, not a sprint.’ Our efforts may bring about change slowly, but we must not give up in our goal of making this a better, more peaceful and safer community.”

Moms Demand Action will host a Family Day at Fountain Street Church on April 24 from 1pm to 3pm, during which there will be games and other children’s activities. They are also planning to participate in Lobby Day, a state-wide effort. Gun control advocates will meet throughout the day with their elected officials in Lansing.  

There are currently several gun-related bills in the Michigan Legislature. During Lobby Day, they will be advocating for the passage of Bill 5443 and against the other three. The bills currently being considered are:
  • Bill 5304, which would allow concealed carry without a government –issued permit.
  • Bill 442, which would allow guns in K-12 schools, college dorms and classrooms, bars, daycare centers, sports arenas, places of worship, hospitals and entertainment facilities.
  • Bill 4795, which would give special-interest groups such as the NRA the power to sue local governments for enforcing gun laws and entitles them to large payouts from those governments.
  • Bill 5443, which would prohibit the sale to and possession of firearms to people on the federal terrorist watch list.
For more information on MASK, visit the group's Facebook page. Moms Demand Action also has a Facebook page with more information about their mission and upcoming events.
Jane Whittington is a freelance writer and editor in Grand Rapids. When she's not writing, she likes to go to New York City, volunteer and spoil her grandchildren.
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