Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church is sandwiched between a police station and a housing project in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood. Dozens of families over the years have filed into the church’s sanctuary to say tear-filled goodbyes to children and teens killed by gun violence.
On a recent afternoon, days after the Parkland mass shooting one county over, the church opened its doors to local mayors, police departments and community members for a follow-up meeting to address the persistent gun violence that has rocked predominantly black communities in Miami-Dade County.
While the country is currently engaged in a national conversation led by the survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High shooting about how to prevent another mass shooting at schools, inside this Liberty City church there was another conversation—planned long before the horror in Parkland—about neighborhood-level gun violence and solutions that would stop the carnage.
Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert said he was in Tallahassee the day when the Legislature was meeting with parents and students from Stoneman Douglas. When he addressed lawmakers, he said he read from a list the names of children and teens killed by gun violence in his community.
“Because I wanted to remind people: the symptoms of not having good gun control is a mass murder, but it’s also a murder, after a murder, after a murder— one at a time. And those shootings are happening across our community every day,” he said.
Mass shootings rightfully capture headlines and lead to talk of policy change, but in this church sanctuary in Liberty City, community leaders also want urgency and resources to end the everyday gun violence that accounts for most killings in Florida and around the country.
Survivors of the Parkland shooting are also asking for the same. Some recently met with teens in Chicago to connect the different ways young people are impacted by gun violence.
"People of color in inner-cities and everywhere have been dealing with this for a despicably long time, and the media cycles just don't cover the violence the way they did here," wrote Emma Gonzalez, one of the more outspoken Parkland survivors on Twitter. "The platform us Parkland Students have established is to be shared with every person, black or white, gay or straight, religious or not, who has experienced gun violence, and hand in hand, side by side."
During the meeting in Mount Calvary, Gilbert said when it comes to mass shootings and everyday gun violence, one thing they have in common are are weak political platitudes of condolences, prayers and proclamations of “not one more” with little or no action to follow after.
“We said [not one more] after Tequila Forshee. We said it after King Carter,” he said.
Tequila was 12 years old when bullets ripped through her grandmother’s living room in Miami Gardens in 2013 while she was getting her hair braided. She did not survive. King Carter was 6 when he was killed in North Miami-Dade in 2016 outside his apartment complex from a gun fight nearby.
“I’m tired of people telling me there are not going to be anymore,” said Gilbert. “You have to make somebody change something. There has to be fewer guns on the streets.”
One of the frustrations from local governments is the inability to regulate guns on a municipal level. Like in many other states, cities and counties that attempt to pass their own gun laws can face stiff consequences. In Florida that means fines up to $5,00 and the governor also has the ability to remove a mayor or commissioner who enact their own rules.
“If you don't want to do it in the Florida Legislature, shut up and let the localities do it,” said Gilbert. “Because if you remove the preemption, we will ban guns.”
Tangela Sears moderated the wide-ranging meeting on gun violence that went well past 10 in the evening. She leads a growing group of families in Miami-Dade called Parents of Murdered Kids. They focus on advocating for policies on a local and state level to help stop and solve the killings that have hit their own doorsteps.
She says the families she represent, many of whom were in the audience wearing red shirts or Rest In Peace shirts bearing the faces of their murdered kids, are often disrespected or ignored by law enforcement agencies and local politicians—the very people they need to help them craft a solutions to this issue.
During the meeting, when a representative from Miami-Dade mayor’s office said everyone in the room had been touched by gun violence in some way, Sears interjected.
“I’m going to stop you right there on behalf of all these families,” Sears said, her voice rising as she looked over at mothers who were shaking their heads and signaling her with arm motions. “I agree everybody in here been touched by gun violence, but everybody ain’t lost a child to gun violence. And that’s a different touch, OK!”
Last year, Sears and her group successfully pushed for a law to protect the identities of witnesses to violent crimes. They hope to use the same on-the-ground relentless pursuit of local leaders to get more laws enacted around community-level gun violence.
At the start of the meeting there was a moment of silence for the 17 victims of the Parkland massacre. Then Sears read from an attendance sheet of political leaders and government institutions who were there to listen to suggestions for solutions and offer up their own
“Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert?”
“School Superintendent Alberto Carvalho?”
“Miami Mayor Francis Suarez?”
A persistent question throughout the night was “Where are the guns coming from?”
Anecdotally, there were stories of straw buyers--people who legally purchase firearms and then report them stolen, when in actuality these guns were knowingly moved to the lucrative black market for illegal sale and a conversations around how people with legal guns store them. A year-long national investigation by The Trace, a non-profit news organization that focuses solely on gun violence, found direct links between a rise in gun thefts from legal owners and crimes that would ultimately hurt and kill people.
More than 237,000 guns were reported stolen in the United States in 2016, according to the investigation, which noted that number is likely an undercount.
Most states, including Florida, do not require gun owners who leave weapons in their vehicles to secure them against theft.
Sears said that’s a problem.
“These kids’ killers do not go and purchase guns,” she said. “They do not go to gun shows and get guns. They steal guns.”
Miami-Dade Commission Chair Steve Bovo who briefly attended the meeting said the county takes seriously the issue of young people being killed. He pointed to a recently passed symbolic resolution by the County Commission that calls on Congress to either renew the ban on assault rifles, like the one used in Parkland, or to impose age restrictions.
Sears replied that if there was a ban she does not believe it would make a significant dent in the killings on the streets of Miami-Dade.
“You can ban every rifle you want to ban,” she said. “These kids weren’t killed by rifles; they were killed by .45s [pistols]”—regular handguns.