My life in Homewood has been shaped by gun violence, and it's got to stop

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The mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., was horrific and deeply troubling for most Americans. As a father and church pastor who is all too familiar with gun violence, the killing of those 20 children and six adults was especially heartbreaking for me. My prayers and thoughts remain with their families.

But as with Columbine, Aurora and Virginia Tech, the Sandy Hook tragedy affected mostly affluent suburbanites. My heart also grieves for the relatively unnoticed people shot and killed every day in poor urban America. Most of these lives are lost without media attention and without national outrage.

Gun violence is something I deal with almost every day. In fact, my entire life can be characterized as a reaction to gun violence.

My aunt was murdered by gunfire. As a result, my mother had a nervous breakdown and subsequent mental illness from which she would never recover.

I have had cousins, friends and church members shot and killed. My wife's mother, grandfather and cousins were shot and killed. My wife's brother has been in prison for more than 20 years for killing someone with a gun.

These shootings in part caused me to enter the ministry and serve a church in my native Homewood, one of the most violent neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. Later, I became a member of Pittsburgh City Council in part to reduce the escalating gun violence in my community.

Gun violence is a public health epidemic in this country. It accounts for 30,000 deaths a year, including suicides, and tens of thousands of injuries because the United States does not have reasonable laws controlling firearm possession and use.

There are more than 300 million guns in this country, and they are used to kill scores of innocent children, teens and young adults every day. Most of those victims live in low- and moderate-income urban neighborhoods like mine. And for the most part, the carnage in poor urban America is accepted, perhaps even expected.

In addition to taking lives, gun violence decimates poorer communities, eliminating their business districts and depressing their property values. In Homewood, for example, the only drugstore and the fast food restaurants have been closed because of the homicides associated with them. A five-bedroom, three-bathroom brick house can be bought for as little as $10,000.

The shooting deaths of poor people and the destruction of their urban neighborhoods pay for the escalating profits of the nation's gun industry.

The gun industry's political and propaganda machine, the National Rifle Association, opposes all responsible gun-ownership laws, focusing instead on increasing gun sales and enlarging gun ownership. The sharp rise in gun sales, especially assault weapons, immediately following the Sandy Hook tragedy is evidence of the NRA's effectiveness.

The NRA now hopes to further increase gun sales by advocating for armed guards in every school. But it is attempting to solve a problem that doesn't exist. According to the Centers for Disease Control, less than 1 percent of gun violence is school-related. The NRA's promotion of unrestricted gun availability is directly responsible for the gun deaths and community destruction in poor urban communities.

One of the most important ways to reduce gun violence in communities such as mine is to enact reasonable policies controlling the possession and use of firearms. The United States, like every other developed nation, must institute a national gun control policy. This should include an assault weapons ban, the elimination of gun shows (where no background checks are performed), a limit on the number and types of firearms purchased, mandatory background checks, waiting periods and federal registration of all guns and ammunition.

Gun violence also can be reduced by significant investment in low- and moderate-income communities because among its driving forces are poverty, hopelessness, underemployment and substandard education. Our nation should provide transformational economic, educational, social-service and workforce development in its poor urban areas. Such reforms could reduce homicides in poor urban neighborhoods and increase public safety in all communities.

My personal experience with gun violence causes me to grieve equally for all of its victims, whether they are my family, my friends or my fellow Americans. I am committed to protecting the lives of all our people and stimulating the economic vitality of all our communities, affluent suburbs and poor urban neighborhoods alike.

Now is the time to craft public policies to prevent gun violence and lift up Newtown, Conn., Pittsburgh, Pa. and every community in this nation.


Ricky Burgess is a member of Pittsburgh City Council and has been pastor of Nazarene Baptist Church in Homewood for 27 years.


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