LANDOVER — Jennifer Stapleton has more than enough experiences with gun violence.
Her first experience hit too close to home when a shooting occurred at a local church in Tennessee in 2008. Two people were killed in the attack. It also happened to be the church her brother and his family attended. Even though they were not there that day, it had a lasting effect on Stapleton.
“I think there is something that we do, or at least I know I do it, is to try to put up a filter between me and gun violence and say for some reason that couldn’t happen in my family,” she said.
“Because of this shooting at my brother’s church, that was punctured. There is no way for me to be separate from it.”
Her next experience happened a few months later when she and her wife had gone shopping. As they prepared to leave, a 19-year-old with a gun stood behind their car, demanding that they get out of it and give it to him. They escaped physically unharmed that day, but their sense of safety was turned upside down and remains so to this day.
What finally broke something inside of her was the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 where 20 children were killed. It was then that she was compelled to take action. She joined Moms Demand Action, which was started shortly after the shooting at Sandy Hook, and has been working to end gun violence ever since.
Her advocacy continued on May 2 as Moms Demand Action held a community conversation on ending gun violence. Elected officials, Prince George’s County Police and county residents either personally affected by gun violence or who simply want to see gun violence end gathered together to tell their experiences at First Baptist Church of Highland Park.
“Why we’re here tonight is to have a conversation within our community about gun violence and how we’re going to end it,” said Stapleton, volunteer leader for the Maryland chapter of Moms Demand Action. “We’re here to end it, we’re not here to curb gun violence…we need this out of our county.”
Moms Demand Action is the largest gun violence advocacy group in the country with about five million members, said Maryland Chapter Leader Danielle Veith. They have 10 local groups in Maryland, including Prince George’s County, and their goal is to change the national conversation against guns.
“It’s going to take all of us here in this room and a lot of people who aren’t in this room,” Veith said. “We know that moms can’t do this alone, law enforcement can’t do this alone. It will take a strong community of diversity of all kinds.”
Prince George’s County Police Chief Hank Stawinski said that Prince George’s County has made “astonishing” progress over the last 10 years in reducing gun violence. According to Stawinski, violent crime, property crime and crime overall have continued to decrease each year.
Nikki Smith, commander of the Oxon Hill District, later added that the PGPD has recovered nearly 400 weapons this year alone, most of which are not being bought at stores but are being obtained illegally in the streets.
“I don’t want to take anything away from the pain and suffering of those who were affected by Pulse, Las Vegas, Sandy Hook…But those are acute instances,” said Stawinski. “What I worry about day in and day out are the chronic instances of gun violence where young men are getting shot and living with horrid injuries or getting shot and killed and nobody rolls the big sound bite trucks out to College Park and Langley Park and Suitland.”
Tyreese McAllister was another person at the meeting who had been directly affected by gun violence. Her daughter Ayana had been shot and killed in Washington, D.C. while she was home on spring break from Saint Augustine’s University.
“When I say that gun violence for me is serious and that I’m going to fight gun violence until my very last breath to end it, I mean that,” said McAllister who also lost another family member and a college classmate that was a police officer to gun violence.
McAllister went on to talk about the necessity of getting guns off the streets, especially within the African American community as African Americans are more likely to be shot by a handgun and are more likely to be shot on the way home from school.
“The gun is really just a symptom of the fact that they don’t feel empowered and they think this little two-inch bullet is more powerful than they are, and that’s the sad fact,” said County Councilmember Monique Anderson-Walker, who attended the meeting, about how guns impact young people. “What we need to do is start empowering them more so they don’t think this is important, so they know that they are important.”
During a question-and-answer session, the group discussed where people on the streets are getting their guns from, to which Stawinski explained that in certain states, people manufacture and sell guns in bulk.
One person pointed out the very few young people in the room and began a discussion on how to get more of them involved. People were also interested in the mental health aspect of the issue as well as how to look at it from the perspective of public health.
Throughout the meeting, Stawinski and other elected officials said that they cannot effectively work to end gun violence without the community. Towards the end, the community was interested in how they could become more involved in getting the guns off the streets.
“The reality is that we’ve got to adjust the conversation so that we’re not focusing on things that are far removed from our daily life,” Stawinski said.
The conversation didn’t stop at the end of the two-and-a-half hour meeting as many people stuck around to continue to talk about the issues and generally found the meeting as a whole informative and empowering.
“This was very informative,” said Shernell Carter from Fort Washington. Together with her husband, Carter has been working with Stawinski and the PGPD to end gun violence since the death of their son.
“I’m very grateful to all the people who have come out, the moms committee, I’m very grateful for all that they are doing try to stop gun violence.”