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Del. Rasoul is working on more legislation to help localities tackle their gun violence issues

A Roanoke community leader’s face-to-face interaction with a citizen earlier this month spurred a rapid distribution of gun locks. Now leaders are planning to inspire more citizens to be “change-makers.”


Rabbi Kathy Cohen, a Gun Violence Prevention Commission member, said she made attempts to hand out free gun locks to families at a National Night Out event. Initially, no one she approached was interested.


“I walked over to this group of probably six or seven younger adults and an older woman and a few children,” Cohen told the commission during its meeting Tuesday. “I said, ‘We want to make sure that no children get hurt, like Camden did last year.’ And this older woman jumps up, and she says, ‘We know him. That family’s our friends. Now, I know all you boys have guns. Take that gun lock right now.’”


Cohen said the woman then walked through the gathering, approaching other community members in attendance.


“She just walked up to people and said, ‘Don’t give me any lip. If you have a gun, take her gun lock and protect your children.’ And in about 20 minutes, I was out of gun locks,” Cohen said.


“Camden” was 8-year-old Camden Brown, who died of a gunshot wound in a southeast Roanoke home a year ago.


The commission is hoping to encourage more community leaders to inspire change through a new program called First Step. It is headed by Eddy Smart, executive director of Better Agreements Inc., a nonprofit community mediation center.

The center’s website says First Step will “equip 100 trusted community volunteers and credible messengers to serve as community peacebuilders to identify, de-escalate, relate, and intervene in the earliest stages of community conflict to reduce violence.”


Smart told the commission Tuesday that he wants people who already have deep relationships formed in the Roanoke community to participate, but connecting with those locals hasn’t been easy.


“It’s hard to communicate that in a flyer or a text message, the fullness of what it is, the skills and concepts paradigm that we’re trying to give to folks to influence their immediate connections,” Smart said.


“Qualified applicants will be trusted individuals who are already actively supporting their community,” the Better Agreements website reads. “Preference will be given to individuals with connections to those statistically most affected by gun violence in the City of Roanoke. There are no other age, educational, or experience requirements.”


About 30 people already have applied to participate in the first cohort of the free program, which is scheduled to start in about three or four weeks, Smart said.


Selected participants will receive a certificate upon completion. But Smart said the 20-hour course comes with a long-term responsibility to promote positive change.


“This is not like a side hustle. You can add it to your resume. It’s great as a job skill. But ultimately, we want to delegate or put a mantle of responsibility on these citizens as change-makers,” Smart said.


Commission members will tell you that the Roanoke community is abundant with resources that can support at-risk citizens. But navigating all of those resources can be hard.


“At the end of the rainbow, there’s a maze to get to the pot of gold,” commission member Elliott Major said.


Commission members hope that First Step program graduates will be able to guide their neighbors through that maze.


“Part of our challenge is how to help them take that next step, so that the training isn’t just a great experience, but we have ways to connect them to use that training,” said Joe Cobb, a city council member and the chair of the commission.

Mike Bento, whose team at Engage Strategies LLC is working with the commission to develop a gun violence prevention communication strategy, said citizens need to know that positive changes are possible.


“Communities respond to tragedy, and tragedy dominates the news,” Bento said. “We need to flip the script so that people have some successes they can respond to.”


Among those success stories are the shooting cases that have been closed by Roanoke police. So far this year, 12 cases have been closed by an arrest.


Three additional cases have been closed due to “exceptional circumstances,” according to a description listed in the commission’s meeting packet.


“The most common reason to close a case by exception is due to lack of victim cooperation or refusal to testify in court against the offender,” the description reads. “Another reason a case can be closed by exception is when the incident was ruled to be an accident or justified self-defense, and therefore no criminal intent was present.”


Between Jan. 1 and Aug. 14, there were 47 incidents in Roanoke in which a victim was hit by gunfire. Eleven were homicides, and 36 were aggravated assaults, the latest city police statistics report says.


A new collection of data was presented to the commission this month. A “journey-to-crime” analysis mapped the distance between an offender’s residence and the location at which their shooting offense occurred.


The data reveals that offenders travel a median distance of about 0.6 miles. One offender this year travelled from North Carolina, Cobb said, and has been involved in multiple incidents.


Some offenders didn’t travel far from home. The shortest Euclidian distance recorded between one offender’s residence and the scene of their crime was only about 20 feet.

The new map reveals that many offenders are leaving their neighborhoods, often crossing into adjacent or opposite quadrants of the city, before shootings occur.


Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, attended the commission meeting Tuesday evening. He said Virginia’s General Assembly is working to develop more legislation to help localities tackle their gun violence issues.


“Probably not a week goes by where we live, at least, in northwest Roanoke where my wife and I don’t pause, because we want to believe that we’re hearing a firecracker, but we’re not,” Rasoul said. “It seems as though there are very few families that are not touched by this in the General Assembly. […] This is an issue that’s top-of-mind for a lot of people, not just those in northwest Roanoke.”


(Source: The Roanoke Times)

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