Silent March reflects grassroots desire to curb gun violence

In less than a week, an initiative of great importance will take place in our nation's Capitol: the "Silent March: Americans Against Gun Violence." The Silent March is a grassroots effort to increase public awareness of the epidemic of gun violence that takes 40,000 lives every year in the United States, enough people to populate a small town. No other industrialized nation at peace has such a high rate of gun violence, and it is preventable. This grassroots effort, which started two years ago, is a national protest against the easy availability of firearms in the United States.

In the spring of 1994, an informal nationwide network of individuals and grassroots groups pulled together a major demonstration, the Silent March Against Gun Violence. The result was a virtual sea of shoes, nearly 40,000, displayed at the Reflecting Pool in front of the Capitol to symbolically represent the thousands of Americans who are killed by guns annually. Thousands of Americans sent their shoes with notes in them calling for an end to gun violence. Guns are lethal weapons that are killing and maiming far too many individuals, especially children. Easy accessibility of guns resulted in 596 homicides, 658 suicides and 61 accidental deaths in Georgia in 1993 alone.

This year, many people were interested in Georgia's being represented at the national demonstration, but none were willing to take the lead. So how could I decline the request when asked to become the state coordinator for the Silent March? Far too many of Georgia's children live in circumstances that put them at risk for problems that may have lifelong consequences and compromise their growth and development because of gun violence.

The Silent March does not support specific legislation. It does, in general, support violence reduction through regulation of firearm manufacture, distribution, sale and ownership, particularly handguns. There is no reason why guns should not be treated like other consumer goods that pose risks. Consumer protection is part of the public health effort to solve the problem of gun violence.

Many of the fallen youth and adult victims of gun violence are never acknowledged. The Silent March is a way to acknowledge their violent death. It is a time for the people in Georgia to witness the human toll taken by guns. Many survivors are left traumatized in the wake of gun violence. That is something I know very well. My 17-year-old son Khalil was shot in the back and killed in 1993 by a random act of violence in downtown Atlanta. After his murder I started a bereavement support and violence prevention group for youth survivors of violence called Kids Alive and Loved (KAL) to combat the problems of traumatized youth. Violence results in serious emotional and developmental problems, which could result in problems with school performance and delinquent behavior. America's children are growing up in an environment of unprecedented violence -- in real life, not just in the media. Many children fear the everyday routines of going to school and getting home again.

Our hope is to help mobilize people from across the country to work in collaboration to prevent gun violence. In Georgia we are collecting 1,338 pairs of shoes to symbolically represent the number of individuals who lost their lives to gun violence in 1993. That is the latest year for which statistics are available. The shoes are being collected at Rollins School of Public Health, and some are on display in the sixth floor corridor. Some shoes have pictures of individuals whose lives were cut short due to gun violence. Other shoes have notes or letters attached stating how gun violence has affected them. Many people across the state are collecting shoes, and some have raised local resources to help ship the shoes to Washington. The Silent March is a visual display of all sizes and kinds of shoes depicting the problem of gun violence in America. By setting out the number of shoes representing individuals killed by firearms through homicide, suicide and accident, we ask that appropriate steps be taken to prevent further gun violence.

Furthermore, the displays help bring new people into the movement against gun violence; connect victims and their families, and concerned citizens; encourage people to become active nationally and locally in preventing further unnecessary injuries and death; educate Americans about the enormity of the problem of gun violence; and emphasize that the trauma of gun violence can be reduced with appropriate public health education and health public policy.

On Sunday, Sept. 15, the shoes were displayed on the steps of the State Capitol for the Georgia Silent March. The shoes were then shipped to Washington, D.C. to be part of the massive Sept. 30 Second Annual National Silent March at Capitol Hill. After the shoes are displayed they will be donated to charity.

This monumental task could not have been achieved without the support of the School of Public Health, the Institute for Minority Health Research and Egleston Children's Hospital, in addition to numerous Emory faculty and students. As state coordinator, I urge the entire Emory community not only to support efforts such as the Silent March, but also to work on an ongoing basis toward creating an environment in which children and youth do not feel threatened by guns and violence.

Bernadette Leite is coordinator for research projects in the Institute for Minority Health Research, Rollins School of Public Health.

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