Isis Attoia, a 15-year-old high school student from Hawthorne, does not walk around his neighborhood at night because he fears he might be shot. This is not mere speculation; relatives of his have been shot. He would like to see an end to gun violence. And so Attoia took time on a recent Saturday to attend the 21st Annual Empowerment Congress Summit Days of Dialogue discussion on gun violence prevention, an event co-sponsored by Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas.
Attoia was one of hundreds who sat around a table s at the University of Southern California and attempted to find solutions to the epidemic of gun violence both here in Los Angeles and across America.
What he heard made him optimistic that he could help lead his friends and fellow students away from violence.
“I will tell my friends not to use guns and I will not use guns,” he said.
The Days of Dialogue initiative is a non-partisan forum founded nearly two decades ago after the civil unrest that erupted in Los Angeles with the Rodney King beating verdict. Spurred by the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut last December, the Days of Dialogue at the Empowerment Congress Summit focused on how communities can band together to end gun violence.
Others like Jerilyn Stapleton of the advocacy group The Peace Alliance, said it was productive to hear the points of view from people of all backgrounds and ages. For example, her baby boomer generation did not grow up playing video games, she said, and she is leery of their influence. Yet she shared her perspective with a young person at her table for whom video games are as familiar and common as records or cassettes were for her. People of all backgrounds, however, seemed to find a common sense of purpose and a lot of agreement, Stapleton said.
“People here understand that gun violence is a public health issue,” she said.
The statistics on gun violence are haunting. In 2010, more than 31,000 Americans died as a result of gun violence. The United States accounts for 5 percent of the world’s population and 35 percent of all civilian gun ownership. A gun in the home makes the likelihood of homicide three times higher, suicide three to five times higher and accidental death four times higher, according to the Children’s Defense Fund.
Participants at the Days of Dialogue forum ranged from high school students to ministers to teachers, all with the objective of asking why gun violence prevention seems controversial, how the Second Amendment relates to gun violence and how individuals could contribute to reducing gun violence. Avis Ridley-Thomas, co-director of UCLA’s Institute for Non-Violence in Los Angeles, moderated the event.
At one table, Michael Harris, an elder at the Metropolitan Church of Christ in Carson, speculated why so many people in the country are resistant to discussing ways to prevent gun violence.
“They don’t see the everyday violence that goes on in our communities,” he said. If they could see it, they would not shrug off the devastating consequences of gun violence for families, neighborhoods and whole communities, he noted. “So, how do we get dialogue?”
But Angeles Echols Brown, a teacher at an Upward Bound Program, said she was not interested in trying to convince the National Rifle Association to discuss reasonable ways to reduce gun violence. She said it was more important to educate people in her community so that solutions could be found on a grassroots level.
“I don’t need to dialogue with the NRA to address what is going on in my community and with my kids,” she said. “We must empower ourselves and bring that to our children.”
Donna Cassyd, a former principal at local continuation school, agreed with Brown.
“We can talk to the NRA but I don’t think they are going to do the right thing,” she said.
Others, however, were ready to take on the gun lobby. Occidental College student Emily Pelz, said the lingering sadness and anger of what happened in Newtown should motivate people to brave the NRA and engage in civic action so that the gun lobby would lose its power.
But the Rev. N.W. Martin of the New Life Institutional Baptist Church took a note of caution. It would not be easy to move the needle.
“The gun lobby is very strong in our state houses and in our Congress,” he said, adding, “This Newtown issue is a watershed moment. If we are ever going to do it, this is the time.”
Pelz said she had recently re-watched Michael Moore’s documentary “Bowling for Columbine,” made in the aftermath of the 1999 Columbine, Colorado school shooting and had felt re-energized.
“This may be naïve,” she said. “Because, yes, the gun lobby has tons of money, but we have voices and the vote. If we make a loud enough racket, maybe we can change things.”