On Sunday, Sept. 27, 2021, a front-page story in the Winston-Salem Journal by Lisa O’Donnell began by asking, “Who was Jumil Dewann Robertson?” Then offered this description:
“He was the grandson who could do no wrong; a cousin in a tight-knit, fun-loving family; a dancer overflowing with natural talent; a friend with no tolerance for bullies; a son who was the light in his mother’s eyes; a father of a spunky toddler who shares his stocky build and facial expressions. Jumil was a boy walking home to make curfew one October night in 2019 when he was shot in the head and torso. He died face down on a sidewalk, a quarter-of-a-mile from his home. He was 17.”
The Journal then offers this commentary, called “Guns in the city”:
A 15-year-old killed in his school; a 2-year-old accidentally shot in the chest by his babysitter; three teenagers arrested for murder; an exchange of gunfire near a high school that terrifies a neighborhood — and that’s just the first three weeks of September.
The fatal shooting of a student at Mount Tabor High School on Sept. 1 brought the issue of gun violence in Winston-Salem to the forefront of the community’s consciousness. But in reality, gun violence has been an insidious plague in some parts of the city for years, inflicting pain and trauma on its residents. Over the next few months, the Journal will look at different angles of gun violence on the city. The series starts with a look at what a family lost when one of its young members was gunned down in 2019.
That “fatal shooting of a student at Mount Tabor High School” occurred when William Chavis Raynard Miller Jr, age 15, was shot down in a school hallway by another 15-year-old who has been charged with murder and may be tried as an adult. On Sept. 1, terrified parents were sent to a grocery store parking lot to await news from the locked-down campus, not knowing who and how many the victims might be.
An updated 2021 report, from the Everytown Center for Gun Safety, shows that between 2013 and 2019, “there were 549 incidents of gunfire on school grounds,” 347 of which took place on “elementary, middle or high school” premises. These resulted in 129 deaths and 270 people wounded, of which some 208 of the victims were students, only one segment of “the more than 3,000 children and teens (ages 0 to 19) shot and killed, and 15,000 shot and wounded, annually.”
Between 2013 and 2019, “there were 549 incidents of gunfire on school grounds,” 347 of which took place on “elementary, middle or high school” premises.
Winston-Salem, N.C., where our family has lived for 25 years, never has been immune from firearm violence. What is new is the increasing deaths of young people, often at the hands of other young people. Many are not old enough to purchase guns themselves but find them readily available for use on each other. This September, Winston-Salem became yet another case study in America’s firearm idolatry, a false “religion” that is literally killing a new generation of our children and grandchildren.
The Children’s Defense Fund says that in 2019, a child or teen in America was killed by gunfire every two hours and 36 minutes. The organization notes that:
- Child/teen firearm deaths reached a 19-year high in 2017 and remain elevated.
- Guns took the lives of more children and teens than pneumonia, cancer, asthma, influenza, HIV/AIDS and opioids combined.
- In 2019, weekly “routine gunfire” took the lives of more children/teens than the deaths caused by shootings at Parkland, Sandy Hook and Columbine schools combined.
- For each child/teen fatality, another five received non-life-threatening firearm wounds.
- While Black child/teens composed 14% of Americans in 2019, they made up 43% of national child/teen firearm-related deaths.
- In 2019, 86% of child/teens killed by guns were boys, many of whom were shot by other boys.
- By 2017, there were some 393 million firearms in the U.S. Two million guns were sold in March 2020 alone, the second largest single month of gun sales on record.
Although written in the sixth century BCE, the words of Jeremiah 9:21-23 could describe the 21st century in the land of the free and home of the fully armed:
Death has climbed in through our windows.
It has entered into our fortified houses.
It has taken away our children who play in the streets.
It has taken away our young men who gather in the city squares.
Tell your daughters and neighbors, “The Lord says:
‘The dead bodies of people will lie scattered everywhere
like manure scattered on a field.
They will lie scattered on the ground
like grain that has been cut down but has not been gathered.’”
Firearm-related childhood and adolescent deaths occur at a time when the resources of government, culture and churches alike are besieged by more divisive and dangerous circumstances than we seem able to handle. Even the shortest list illustrates the communal dilemma: Opioid crisis; sexuality debates; innumerable political controversies and divisions, immigration, health care, religious liberty questions, voting rights, and the very nature of democracy itself.
While firearms are often thought to provide protection, they also facilitate threats or actions of violence. Guns are easily secured, especially in certain states. The Texas Tribune reports that a new Texas gun law, mirroring that of other states, effective Sept. 1, allows “anyone 21 years or older to carry a handgun in public without need for a permit or training as long as they aren’t otherwise prohibited from owning a firearm by law, such as people with felony or domestic violence convictions.”
“A continuing response to gun violence is simply the proliferation of more guns.”
Thus a continuing response to gun violence is simply the proliferation of more guns. Guns are everywhere, and our children know how to find them. An online ad for the Glock 19 links devastating weaponry with banal description: “The Glock 19 in 99 mm Luger is ideal for a versatile role thanks to its reduced dimensions when compared to the standard sized option. In addition to its use as a conventional service pistol, it is ideal for use as a backup weapon or for concealed carry purpose.”
Again the Hebrew prophets call us to account, as Isaiah wrote: “God shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
Isaiah’s hope-filled words to Israel seem as elusive now as they were in 740 BCE, rewritten even more devastatingly in America 2021: “They shall beat their swords into AK 47s, and their spears into Glock 19s.”
With that, Jeremiah’s plaintive reality has become our own: Death “has taken away our children who play in the streets. It has taken away our young men who gather in the city squares.”
The Everytown Center offers the following plan for school safety:
- Pass extreme risk laws.
- Encourage secure firearm storage.
- Raise the age to purchase semiautomatic firearms.
- Require background checks on all gun sales.
- Create evidence-based threat assessment programs in schools.
- Implement expert-endorsed school security upgrades.
- Initiate effective, trauma-informed emergency planning.
- Create safe and equitable schools.
Until this or similar plans are implemented, and as firearm violence continues unabated, perhaps public buildings and events should consider posting something like this at their entrances:
“Because of our nation’s dedication to the Second Amendment, we must warn those who occupy this space — theaters, restaurants, concerts, night clubs, churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, prayer meetings, department stores, sporting events, primary and secondary schools, colleges and universities, hospitals, airports, offices, factories, parks, streets, banks, state houses, court houses, front porches, Congress — enter at your own risk.”
Bill Leonard is founding dean and the James and Marilyn Dunn professor of Baptist studies and church history emeritus at Wake Forest University School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, N.C. He is the author or editor of 25 books. A native Texan, he lives in Winston-Salem with his wife, Candyce, and their daughter, Stephanie.
Do we love children enough to put our guns aside? | Opinion by Susan Shaw
Seeing gun violence as a pro-life issue | Opinion by Shane Claiborne and Michael Martin