About two dozen gun control advocates — ranging from local community activists to the father of a victim of the Newtown, Conn., school shooting — gathered Saturday in front of City Hall to rally for more comprehensive background checks on firearm purchases.
The event was part of “No More Names: National Drive to Reduce Gun Violence,” a 25-state bus tour organized by Mayors Against Illegal Guns and focused on influencing leaders to support gun control policies.
“My 14-year-old was murdered in the streets, and I’m saddened still today by his death,” said Cinthia Finch, whose son Jermaine was killed in New Orleans in 2003. “I feel that the lack of gun violence prevention allowed a teenager not much older than my son to murder him and take his life away.”
Finch and numerous other attendees thanked U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who did not attend, for her recent support of the Manchin-Toomey amendment. The amendment, which fell four votes short of passage in the Senate in April, would have expanded background checks to cover all commercial firearms sales, including those at gun shows and via the Internet
Neil Heslin, whose then 6-year-old son Jesse Lewis was killed in the December 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn., called the legislation a “common sense bill” and urged participants to push for its passage.
“It’s sinful that it became a political game and that congressmen value their jobs and their positions over the children’s lives,” he said.
Heslin, whose son Jesse’s birthday is on Sunday, choked back tears as he spoke about memories of his child. “When Jesse died, when he was killed that day, it was the hardest day of my life. Every day since has been a struggle.”
According to FBI crime report data cited by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, Louisiana has some of the highest rates of gun violence in the nation. In 2011, the state had 99.5 aggravated assaults with firearms per 100,000 residents — 96 percent more than the national average.
Those statistics are coupled with Louisiana’s woeful performance in submitting mental health records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. As of Oct. 31, 2012, Louisiana had submitted only two mental health records, while the national average for states in the U.S. was 533.2.
According to a survey released by Mayors Against Illegal Guns in March, more than 85 percent of Louisiana residents support background checks for all gun buyers.
Dan Zelenka, an attorney and president of the Louisiana Shooting Association, said he’s one of them. However, Zelenka opposed the Manchin-Toomey amendment, which he believed would have caused an undue burden by forcing those involved in private gun transactions to go to a federally licensed gun store for a background check.
“If you’re in Metairie, it might take 10 minutes. If you’re in Alaska, it might take half a day, Zelenka said.
Zelenka said a better alternative was an amendment introduced by U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., which would utilize the National Instant Criminal Background Check System to allow gun buyers to prove their eligibility for purchasing firearms via a computer or smartphone.
Zelenka was critical of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which is spearheaded by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and supported by 950 mayors across the U.S., including New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
“It’s really a misnomer; I mean everyone is against illegal guns. Their approach is to increase the burden of ownership of gun buyers,” Zelenka said.
He argued that most gun control efforts would have no effect on preventing mass shootings.
“The reality is that everyone is anti-gun violence. Gun owners are probably the most appalled people when multiple shootings happen. But placing restrictions on me exercising my constitutional rights will do nothing to present any sort of crime or tragedy,” he said.
At Saturday’s event, community activists read the names of people who had been killed by guns in the last six months; an average of 33 Americans die from gun violence each day.
Stewart Young, a program director for the New Orleans Youth Mentoring Connection, said that combating the high murder rates in New Orleans necessitates not just policy changes, but also mentorship programs that give young people hope.
Young, whose organization provides programs such as work site mentoring and life skills workshops to at-risk youth, said that one of the terrible ironies of gun violence is that often, victims and perpetrators are facing the same dire circumstances.
“They’re the same characters, and they suffer from the same challenges,” he said.
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