It’s less than a week after a racist mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, that killed 10 Black grocery store shoppers and employees.
It’s one day after 4-year-old Savannah Holmes of Ankeny found her father’s gun on the couch and accidentally shot and killed herself.
Most people in the room Thursday night at the Waterloo Center for the Arts have lost a family member or friend to gun violence. When Joe Gorton puts up Savannah’s photo on the screen, one even says they know this little girl’s family, too.
It’s one thing to know, in the abstract, all of the lives ended by gun violence: A little more than 20,000 US residents in 2020, excluding suicides. That’s through mass shootings that Gorton, a retired UNI associate professor of criminology, calls “rampages;” through domestic violence, or what he calls “family annihilation;” during outbursts of anger; defending territory, through stray bullets and accidental shootings.
It’s another thing entirely to care about that number.
So Gorton pulls up the National Gun Violence Memorial, a website that chronicles all such deaths since 2015 with photos, updated almost daily. He clicks on the worst category: Children 0-12. Dozens of smiling faces, frozen in time before they got a chance to grow up, fill the screen.
Savannah, in a blue-and-white summer tank top with matching hair bow, is now one of them.
“Every one of these lives lost by gun violence is a tragedy—it’s a terrible tragedy,” Gorton said, slowly scrolling down the page. “These children are not involved in the drug game. You don’t get more innocent than this.”
If Gorton—the president of the Iowa chapter of the Brady Campaign, which advocates for gun control policies—can get this group of people to care, maybe they’ll start laying the groundwork for Waterloo to try a new, holistic model for curbing gun violence.
If they can make it work here, where between two and nine people lose their lives to gun violence each year, it might be a model for the nation.
It’s what gives Gorton hope.
“Everything we’ve tried to do about gun violence in this country has failed—even attempts at certain public health models have failed,” he said. “What we need is a massive infusion of resources into the community to treat the root causes of gun violence.”
When it comes to gun violence and crime in general, Waterloo has a bad reputation it doesn’t deserve.
When the t-shirt designer RAYGUN was memorializing Iowa cities using various puns related to local landmarks, it infamously released a shirt in 2010 saying “Waterloo: You May Recognize Us From ‘Cops,'” worn by a Black male model.
The backlash to what city leaders considered to be a mean-spirited and racist take on the city—never mind that there had never actually been a Waterloo episode of the show—caused the company to immediately pull the shirt from the shelves.
The incident spoke to what the rest of lily-white Iowa thinks of Waterloo, which has the largest population of Black residents per capita in the state, at 17.4%. Indeed, it’s not even a white Iowa problem—white people across the U.S. regularly conflate Black people living in an area with higher rates of crime in that area, despite statistics showing otherwise, according to an American Journal of Sociology study.
Those statistics: Waterloo didn’t even make the top 10 most dangerous cities in Iowa in 2021, and overall crime in the city has been on the downswing for years. The “shooting every day” rhetoric you hear on social media, thus, is total nonsense.
But that doesn’t mean gun violence has disappeared.
Public health model
The Waterloo page on the Gun Violence Memorial still holds the faces of gun violence victims. There are 46, dating back to 1908, with most coming after 2014.
It’s where Gorton wants to start, and he has the big-picture idea: He envisions millions or even tens of millions that will be needed to build community centers and staff them with full-time counselors, educators and more. He doesn’t want to rely on government grants, instead funding it through large local companies.
“So, what we want to do: A comprehensive, coordinated program to reduce the risk of young people putting a gun in their hands,” Gorton said.
His holistic approach aims to bring in faith leaders, social workers, students, domestic violence advocates and law enforcement, and some people from each category showed up to his gun violence talk to hear his plan.
Gorton admits he’s short on details, but said that’s by design—he wants the larger community to buy in to the plan, and make it their own.
If it sounds like a plan advanced by Waterloo City Councilor Jonathan Grieder, it may end up being quite similar. But Gorton—beaten down over the past few years by a lack of buy-in from state or local legislators—is adamant he’d rather not have elected officials involved.
Instead, he’s talking to the local bookstore owner, the pastors, the chief of police and the students like the ones who showed up Thursday, saying he should bring his presentation to their school’s assembly.
After the presentation, there were still a few skeptics, and some who said they were already overstretched in the community. But they still added their names to Gorton’s list.
“People should not be naive about this—it’s a complicated problem that defies a simple solution,” Gorton said. “But what I do believe is, if we get the right people in the room together, committed to this, we can help create solutions and then persuade people who have access to the resources to devote those resources to solving the gun violence problem in Waterloo.”
By Amie Rivers
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