Friday, December 15, 2017

Perspective: As the toll climbs, advocates bring renewed attention to Florida gun violence

Times Staff Writer

Like most 12-year-old girls, Ra'Mya Eunice loved slumber parties.

She was at one on April 30, fast asleep, when a bullet blast through the wall, striking the side of her head.

Ra'Mya was rushed into surgery, her grandmother Terri Eunice said. But she lost most of her brain function, and had to be put on a ventilator.

Her parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, siblings and cousins gathered in a Jacksonville hospital, hoping to spot signs of recovery. The blink of an eye. The wiggle of a finger.

They waited and they prayed.

Last week, it was time to make a decision.

• • •

Ra'Mya's story is becoming increasingly familiar in Florida.

Earlier this year, a Tampa Bay Times analysis found that on average, a child in Florida is shot every 17 hours.

The toll is rising. The number of kids killed by firearms rose nearly 20 percent from 2010 through 2015, the Times found. Injuries jumped by almost 36 percent.

On June 2, National Gun Violence Awareness Day, advocates across the country will wear orange to honor those affected by gun violence and spark a national conversation on gun safety.

Why orange? It's the color hunters wear to avoid being shot.

Now in its third year, the national Wear Orange campaign is fast gaining traction. Last year, celebrities, politicians and professional athletes sported orange on social media, and the Empire State Building and Niagara Falls were bathed in tangerine light.

"Wear Orange isn't about politics," said Michelle Gajda, Florida chapter leader of the advocacy group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. "It's about ending gun violence and saving lives."

This year, Florida will host more Wear Orange events than any other state — a deliberate attempt "to highlight the magnitude of the gun violence epidemic" here, Gajda said.

She and other advocates hope to enlist the support of elected officials, including those who hold power in the Florida Legislature.

That won't be easy.

During the 2017 legislative session, which ended this month, several Democrats filed proposals intended to protect kids from firearms. Sen. Gary Farmer, from Lighthouse Point, tried tightening the law that requires gun owners to lock their firearms when children are around. And Sen. Lauren Book, from Plantation, proposed increasing the criminal penalties for adults whose guns wind up in kids' hands.

But Republicans, who control the Senate and House, declined to take action on either bill.

Before session, the lawmaker with the most influence over gun policy — Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Greg Steube — told the Times state law does enough to hold gun owners accountable.

Even a bill to raise awareness about gun violence struggled to find support.

That proposal — which would have urged Congress to designate September 2017 as firearm violence awareness month — barely advanced out of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. Two Republicans voted against it. Two others skipped the vote, a tactic lawmakers sometimes use to avoid a controversial vote they will have to defend back home.

The measure did not receive another hearing.

"It is frustrating that we cannot get unanimous agreement from Republicans that we need to be aware of the public health crisis that is gun violence," Democratic Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith said after the vote.

The session wasn't especially successful for gun rights advocates, either. Moderate Republicans killed proposals that would have allowed open carry and reduced the number of public places where firearms are prohibited.

Gun safety advocates considered that a victory.

"We're delighted that proposals for the carrying of firearms on college campuses, in airports, courthouses and many other public places were squashed," said Patti Brigham, who co-chairs the Florida Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence.

Meanwhile, the number of young lives touched by gun violence in Florida has continued to climb.

On March 23, 15-year-old Kaden Irizarry was gunned down by another teenager in New Port Richey. He survived the shooting, which the Pasco County Sheriff's Office said stemmed from a dispute over money.

Four days later, outside of Orlando, Allen D. Cashe stormed into his girlfriend's home with an AK-47 and opened fire. He killed the woman and her 8-year-old son, who slept on the couch.

Another son, age 7, was seriously injured.

Children have also been involved in unintentional shootings. On March 29, a 4-year-old boy accidentally shot himself in the belly in his Zephyrhills home. He survived.

Tedra King, 13, wasn't as lucky. She lost her life on April 25, when her older brother fired a bullet into the back of her head. Martaevious Santiago, of Florida City, told police the shooting was an accident. He was charged with aggravated manslaughter.

The bullet that struck Ra'Mya Eunice on April 30 was fired by the homeowner's 11-year-old nephew, according to published reports. It was not clear how he got the gun.

After the shooting, Ra'Mya's family kept vigil outside her Jacksonville hospital room for almost four weeks. They gathered there on nights and weekends, on Mother's Day. "Some of us have been crying and just praying for the best," said her 10-year-old cousin Janya McCloud.

They held out hope until the doctors said they had done everything possible.

They took Ra'Mya off life support Thursday.

Times health and medicine writer Kathleen McGrory has reported on pediatric gun injuries and deaths as part of the University of Southern California Center for Health Journalism's National Fellowship. Contact her at [email protected] or (727) 893-8330. Follow @kmcgrory.

Times staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.


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