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Turning despair into action to end gun violence

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REUTERS/Eric Thayer
Here’s one thing we can know: If we see the aftermath of Newtown as one more moment when a violent act spurs no action — if we resign ourselves that nothing will happen — then, in fact, nothing will.

We can’t know what it is like for a small Connecticut community to come to terms with the mass shootings last week, particularly when so many of the victims were small children. But here in Minneapolis, the mass shootings at Accent Signage last September, other violent acts involving children, and so much more gun violence have taught us tragic lessons about how to try to bring peace to victims’ loved ones.

RT Rybak
MinnPost/Terry Gydesen
Mayor R.T. Rybak

We can’t know what it was like for President Obama to stand before the families and the country when he appealed to address this insane violence on a deeper level. But sadly, I know very well what it is like for him to break down as he talked about violence as a leader and also a father.

Here’s one thing we can know: If we see the aftermath of Newtown as one more moment when a violent act spurs no action — if we resign ourselves that nothing will happen — then, in fact, nothing will.

The only way I know of to make any sense of this senselessness is to turn every bit of our anxiety into action.

No one thing will stop inhuman acts of violence — if there was a single action that could suddenly make everything better, people would have done that a long time ago.

But in Minneapolis over the past several years, we have met tragedy with action of many different kinds. Much hard work is already under way here on many fronts. Rather than despairing that “nothing ever happens,” let’s finish this work and resolve to do even more.

Here are just some of the things that we are doing in Minneapolis to fight gun violence.

Regional gun summit. For nearly a year, my office has been working with Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett to put together a regional gun summit in Minneapolis that will take place in early January. We are bringing together mayors and police chiefs from Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Midwest to share best practices for reducing gun violence, build partnerships and design new initiatives to stop the proliferation of gun violence and illegal guns. It will mark the first time that this broad cross-section of chiefs and policy makers has gathered to tackle this issue face to face.

Guns know no boundaries: nor should we, when it comes to stopping gun violence.

Changing federal law. I have been a longtime member of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the organization founded by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and co-chaired by Boston Mayor Tom Menino, and I have worked with them on many of the national issues that we need to fix in Congress. Among the ones on our agenda right now are:

I’m encouraged that President Obama has tapped Vice President Joe Biden to lead policy changes like these. At the same time, this work isn’t new to mayors: These are changes for which we’ve been fighting for years.

None of these common-sense actions at the federal level would do a single thing to limit the right to hunt or legitimately own a gun. But together, they would save many, many lives.

Youth violence prevention. For five years now, scores of partners in Minneapolis have been cooperating on a multi-faceted, public-health approach to youth-violence prevention that has gotten real results, including that from 2006–11, the number of incidents involving youth and guns dropped 66%.

We’ve received national attention for this work. Last year, Attorney General Eric Holder recognized our success, and last week, I joined other Minneapolis officials in Washington at a meeting of the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention, which the Obama administration selected Minneapolis to join earlier this year. We got together with representatives of nine other cities roll up our sleeves, share ideas and strategize about how we can work together, including on preventing gun violence.

This is good, but there is more to do. I have asked Minneapolis attorney Andy Luger to conduct a review of our last five years of youth-violence prevention in order to tell us how we can improve and what other best practices we can incorporate.

Tracing guns. Every time that someone uses a gun to commit a crime in Minneapolis, the first question I ask is, “Where did the gun come from?” As a result, Minneapolis police work not only to solve the crime and bring the perpetrator to justice, but to trace how the gun came to be involved in a crime in the first place. We are also trying to answer the questions, “Who is arming our communities?” and especially, “Who is arming our kids?” So far, this work points to the need to restrict so-called straw purchases — when someone illegally buys a gun for someone else who is legally barred from doing so — and to require people to report to law enforcement when their guns are lost or stolen.

Partnership. The City of Minneapolis can’t do all this work on its own: we partner closely with other law-enforcement agencies, and with the community, to try to eliminate gun violence. On the law-enforcement side, we have had strong partnerships with the office of United States Attorney B. Todd Jones, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and the office of Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman. Our partnership has focused in particular on getting the most serious illegal-gun offenders off the street, and our efforts have met with success. And in the community, we have been joined by so many great partners who are committed to fighting gun violence and making our entire city safer.

All this work, while productive, highlights that there is more to do, and we are committed to doing more. At the same time, there are broader cultural and political forces that also bear on it from outside.

Mental-health reform. The shootings in Newtown, Conn., and at Accent Signage in Minneapolis — like so many more of the violent acts that we have seen — involved people who were facing serious mental-health challenges. We cannot expect the change we need unless we significantly reform a deeply disconnected mental-health system. This fact has been chillingly clear to me as mayor since the day 11 years ago when our police were involved in the shooting of a man who was wielding a machete down Franklin Avenue. But cities don’t have the resources to tackle mental-health systems change on our own, so we need to work across boundaries to reform it, put resources behind it, and help people get the help they need.

Culture of violence. One of the four principles of Minneapolis’ approach to youth-violence prevention — and perhaps the most fundamental — is that we must “unlearn the culture of violence in our community.”

This means many things: how we raise our children as parents and a community, how we end domestic violence, how we treat alcohol and drug dependency, how we promote gun safety, and so much more. Above all, how we build a culture that says of violence, enough is enough.

Another piece of unlearning the culture of violence is changing how we create and consume media in which violence plays a prominent role.

In the aftermath of the shooting in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., earlier this year, I heard a movie executive say how tragic it was because, according to him, movie theaters are refuges where people can get away from the violence of real life. When I heard that, I thought, has he seen any movies lately? We do not and cannot escape violence in the theater, any more than we do or can on television or in video games. We are being inundated by media that often are dominated by hideous levels of extreme, almost unthinkable violence. We must ask ourselves, what do we expect to happen when our popular culture bombards us with a never-ending diet of it, and we consume it? And how much worse does it make it for people already facing mental-health challenges?

Changing the ways our culture creates, and we consume, media in which violence is prominent won’t by itself lead us to unlearn the culture of violence. It won’t by itself ensure that nothing like Newtown ever happens again. But it is nonetheless a change that we must demand of others and ourselves.

A Better Future

Last Sunday night, I spoke to Shereen and Sami Rahamim, the wife and son of Reuven Rahamim, the late owner of Accent Signage. Sami was on his way to meet his sister Miya in New York City, to join a gathering of family members of shooting victims that was organized by Mayor Bloomberg.

The Connecticut tragedy’s coming at the end of Hanukkah brought back much of the Rahamims’ feelings of loss. But in our conversation, I sensed powerfully that they did not intend to use their despair to retreat. They were resolved instead to turn it into action, to bring about change, to do anything they could to stop their tragedy, the Connecticut tragedy and others like it from happening again.

We need to follow the Rahamims’ example — to never give up fighting, to never assume things can’t be better, because they have to get better. And if we can get past our own despair and act, one day they will.

R.T. Rybak is the mayor of Minneapolis. This commentary originally appeared on The Mayor blog; it is republished with permission.

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