Community engagement was a theme throughout a forum on Thursday evening held to address the recent rise in gun violence in the Charlottesville area – the second in less than a month.
But the suggestion that the community is not already involved, or that a lack of involvement is what has contributed to the violence, rubbed some attendees the wrong way.
“That’s a slap in the face to those of us who are out in the streets with the kids every single day,” Wes Bellamy, the chair of Virginia State University’s political science department and a former Charlottesville City Council member, said during the forum.
Bellamy has been vocal on Twitter about his and other Charlottesville residents’ work to mediate and prevent violent conflicts.
Gun violence has claimed the lives of 14 people in Charlottesville and surrounding Albemarle County and left 22 others injured since September of last year, according to an ongoing Daily Progress tally.
Thursday’s forum was preceded by a shooting the night before on Cedar Hill Road north of Barracks Road Shopping Center that injured no one but damaged several vehicles – and is still under investigation.
The city held an earlier forum on gun violence on Feb. 27, the day before a standoff in the parking lot of the Red Roof Inn off Emmet Street left one man dead.
Charlottesville Police Chief Michael Kochis, who joined the force in January, is adamant that he is dedicated to real practical solutions.
He has implemented “community walk and talks,” increased patrols in “hot spot” neighborhoods and floated the idea of a gun buyback program to get firearms off the streets.
“It’s not just talk, right? We’re having these discussions tonight, but there are people out there doing the real work as we speak,” Kochis told The Daily Progress on Thursday after the forum’s conclusion.
Thursday’s forum was organized by Walker Buford United Parent Teacher Organization and the Charlottesville Coalition for Gun Violence Prevention. It included Kochis, Democratic state Senator Creigh Deeds, Alvin Edwards of the anti-violence group the B.U.C.K. Squad and representatives from Albemarle County Public Schools and Charlottesville City Schools.
During the forum, Deeds also emphasized practical solutions, including a hallmark of his legislative career: improved mental health care.
In November of 2013, Deeds’ son, who suffered from bipolar disorder, stabbed his father 13 times with a knife before fatally shooting himself with a rifle. The elder Deeds’ face remains scarred from the attack.
Deeds has made mental health care a priority in the General Assembly.
Lawmakers can increase funding for supportive care and up the number of psychiatric residents, he said at Thursday’s forum.
But Deeds also touched on the theme of community engagement and called on parents to be more involved in their children’s lives.
He acknowledged that parental involvement would be a tough thing to legislate.
“All the laws in the world don’t solve all the problems,” Deeds told The Daily Progress after the forum. “But the community has to be involved every step of the way.”
One solution the city of Charlottesville is considering at a more local level is a gun buyback program. The city would have to pass an ordinance to conduct the buyback and the program is being considered as part of the planning for next year’s budget.
Experts, however, have told The Daily Progress there isn’t much evidence to support the claim that buybacks remove guns from the hands of violent criminals.
“It’s largely anecdotal,” William V. Pelfrey Jr., a criminal justice professor in the Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University, told The Daily Progress earlier this month. “There’s not a lot of scholarly research, because the consequences are so difficult to determine.”
Kochis maintains such programs could be effective, but in tandem with other initiatives.
“If you ask me, does a gun buyback program work, in and of itself? Absolutely not. Not one thing is going to work in and of itself,” Kochis said during Thursday’s forum.
Kochis told the audience that the shootings and homicides Charlottesville has suffered are unrelated to drugs or robberies. Instead, he said, they are personal disputes between people who disagree with each other.
He has declined to identify the shootings as gang-related.
“You have groups from different neighborhoods that obviously have beefs with each other, and they’re also settling disputes with firearms,” Kochis told The Daily Progress.
Across the city lines, officials in neighboring Albemarle County have been direct that the root cause of the rise in violence is gangs.
“This increase is largely driven by the shootings in our community that are being linked to individuals with known gang affiliations,” Albemarle Police Chief Sean Reeves told The Daily Progress earlier this month in a prepared statement.
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