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March is silent; its message is clear

Shirley Wright stood at the entrance to Tampa Children's Hospital early Friday and bent down to touch a pair of black, high-top tennis shoes covered with red roses.

At that moment, she broke down and cried. It has been more than two years since her 16-year-old son, Jason Palm, was shot to death outside a Dade City convenience store. The pain is still fresh.

Wright placed her son's shoes at the hospital Friday for Silent March, a national event held every two years to draw attention to gun violence. Shoes were displayed in 35 cities across the country to remind people of children younger than 20 who have died as a result of suicides, homicides and accidental shootings.

"Guns destroy lives," Wright said. "It's plain and simple."

The first Silent March was held in 1994 in Washington, D.C., when nearly 40,000 shoes were placed on the steps of the Capitol to represent the number of victims in the United States. In 1996, the event was held again in Washington.

This year, organizers decided to branch out and allow states to hold their own events, which would focus on younger people who have been killed. St. Joseph's Hospital's new children's wing, called Tampa Children's Hospital, was chosen as the Florida site.

All sorts of shoes lined the hospital's entrance, including boots, sneakers, slippers, high heels, moccasins, sandals, flip flops and baby shoes.

"When you see the wide variety of shoes, it makes you realize that it affects people from all aspects of society," said Debra Bara, a manager at the hospital and past event coordinator. "Anyone who thinks otherwise is naive."

Tina Johnstone, of New York, founded Silent March in 1994 after her husband was gunned down during an apparent robbery attempt. She wanted to educate people about the dangers of guns, push for better regulation and legislation and encourage manufacturers to consider more safety features.

"I want the guns to be put in jail and I am not going to feel safer until guns are put in jail," Johnstone said. "There are 10 more guns to replace the gun that killed my husband."

Marilyn Menendez agreed. Her 19-year-old niece committed suicide in 1995 in her grandmother's Tampa home. She had worked at Busch Gardens, had a new apartment and car and seemed happy. Officials never determined where she obtained the gun.

"Even a BB gun can be deadly," Menendez said. "I don't feel they belong with anyone other than authorities."

Wright said she hoped the public would look past the statistics that indicate nearly 40,000 people are killed by guns each year in the U.S. and see the victims as people.

"I want people to know he's not just a number," Wright said. "He was a person who was deeply loved."