Dawn Carafeno, of Guilford, a leader of Moms Demand ActionÑCT Shoreline, holds a sign with the names of gun violence victims. She asked to fund organizations that go out into the street to prevent gun violence, including the Office of Gun Violence Prevention. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

Survivors of gun violence and those working in the community to stop its spread gathered at the Capitol Monday to urge legislators to create and fund an Office of Gun Violence Prevention and to declare gun violence a public health crisis. 

Janet Rice recounted how her only child, Shane Oliver, died nine years ago after getting shot during a verbal altercation. She recalled 3-year-old Randell Jones getting shot and killed last year, as he sat in his mother’s car, awaiting a special treat from the corner store. She mentioned Sylvia Cordova, a grandmother who was shot and killed while cooking dinner in her home, and Heriberto Garcia, shot in the back by a friend. And she mentioned a recent death, Allison McCoy, shot to death as she slept in her bed.

The problem they were gathering to discuss was not new, Rice said. “This epidemic has been going on for decades.”

Speakers, which included state and local leaders both in and outside of government, called on lawmakers to create a state-level office to focus on reducing gun violence across Connecticut. That office would unify state agency responses to the crisis and address root causes of violence. Instead of focusing efforts on the supply of guns, the agency could address the demand, providing a holistic, community-centered response to what advocates described as a public health, and mental health, crisis. 

The demonstration took place on the ninth anniversary of the March for Change Rally, when 5,000 people gathered following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School to demand changes to Connecticut’s gun laws, and the fourth anniversary of the Parkland school shooting, in which 17 people were killed.

Gun homicides hit a 25-year high in Connecticut last year, mirroring national trends. The victims were disproportionately people of color. Of the 118 people who died in a gun-related homicide in 2021, 65% were Black, Jeremy Stein, the executive director of CT Against Gun Violence, said at the rally. 

Protesters stand outside the CT State Capitol in the cold wind to call on the state to create and fund an Office of Gun Violence Prevention and to declare gun violence in Connecticut a public health crisis. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

An hour before the press conference, the Public Health Committee agreed to hold a public hearing for a bill that would establish an Office of Gun Violence Prevention and declare gun violence a public health crisis. The measure appears similar to proposals made by the governor that would address gun violence.

Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport and co-chair of the committee, admitted that legislators’ efforts to address gun violence have been “piecemeal” ever since they passed landmark legislation in the wake of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012. 

“We have yet to make a serious effort to really stem the tide of guns in our state,” Steinberg said. “We’re expecting that in the public hearing, we will have a robust conversation about a variety of specific steps we might take.”

Steinberg was also present at the rally. He reiterated what he told his colleagues at the committee hearing. 

“We expect that public hearing to be an opportunity for us all to comment, not simply on creating these offices and recognizing this problem but to address exactly the kind of opportunities you’ve heard described here today, investing in community programs that work, coordinating between these programs so that they’re more effective, scaling up these programs so they are available throughout the state,” he said.

Gun violence is every bit as contagious as COVID-19, said Jacqueline Santiago, the CEO of COMPASS Youth Collective, an organization that Santiago said works with youth “that stand on both sides of the gun — they’re either drivers of violence, or victims of violence, because violence is a public health issue.”

Santiago said COMPASS works with survivors of gun violence to stop the cycle of retribution, helping to heal their trauma and make streets safer. But community groups need funding, Santiago said. One way or another, taxpayers will foot the bill, she assured the crowd. They can either pay to prevent gun violence, or they can cover the cost of hospital bills and incarceration, tragedies that unfold in the aftermath of shootings. 

Members of Connecticut’s federal delegation were also in attendance. U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a longtime champion of gun reform and member of the Judiciary Committee, said that President Joe Biden has proposed $5 billion for community intervention efforts, which Blumenthal said were vital because they reach young people before they fire their guns. 

“These community intervention programs work,” he said. “Connecticut is showing that they work.” 

One theme of the community groups’ speakers was that they know how to help their communities because they are from the same streets where the violence is taking place. They are effective because they have lived through it themselves. They are living proof to young people involved in gun violence that there is a better way to live.

Sean Nattis is one of the young people who has been helped by COMPASS. A Hartford resident, he was shot when he was 12 years old. It was hard growing up, he said, feeling unsafe while walking around his neighborhood with his mom.

“There’s so much gun violence in my community. It just won’t stop,” he said. “I just want better for my community.”

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Kelan is a Report For America Corps Member who covers the intersection of mental health and criminal justice for CT Mirror. Before joining CT Mirror, Kelan was a staff writer for City Weekly, an alt weekly in Salt Lake City, Utah, and a courts reporter for The Bryan-College Station Eagle, in Texas. He is originally from Philadelphia.