In January 2015, Alex Rojas Garcia, a student at Temple University, was shot 15 times and left for dead on a cold and lonely street in Philadelphia.
In the six years since, his mother, Aleida Garcia, has taken her tragedy and turned it into fuel for a crusade to fight the scourge of gun violence in her hometown. Alex’s wasn’t the first gun death in Philadelphia, and it won’t be the last. But every victim, and every survivor has a story to tell.
“For the past six years, I have immersed myself in all aspects of gun violence prevention and response,” Garcia, the co-founder and president of the Philadelphia-based National Homicide Justice Alliance said. “I’ve told my story countless times, but if it will save lives, I will tell it again and again.”
Though it’s been pushed off the front pages by the COVID-19 pandemic, gun violence has continued to rage, seemingly unchecked, across the nation. It’s an epidemic within the pandemic, and its public health cost is just as dear.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania’s largest city, logged 499 homicides in 2020, the victims overwhelmingly Black and brown, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. In the first 79 days of 2021, the city already has seen 59 homicides, Garcia said.
Last week, state and federal lawmakers from the Keystone State announced they were taking a collaborative approach to try to curb the violence.
In Washington, Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey and Philadelphia Rep. Dwight Evans are partnering on legislation aimed at helping gun violence survivors and the families of victims navigate the tangle of federal programs they need to access for the mental, medical, legal, and financial support they need.
“Government is a complicated place to turn for a lot of Americans,” Casey said, adding that access to “the resources and support they should have a right to expect,” should be easy and uncomplicated.
Evans said both he and Casey “agree on the sense of urgency and we recognize that something has to be done now. And we share that mission. After hearing the voices we hear – every day, and that’s not acceptable any longer.”
Gun violence reduction efforts have historically hit a brick wall in Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled General Assembly. And the issue vanished entirely from the Legislature’s radar as lawmakers struggled to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the state level, state Sen. Art Haywood, and Rep. Donna Bullock, both Philadelphia Democrats, are sponsoring bills that would create a state-funded, $30 million grant program that would pay for “community-based violence reduction initiatives with demonstrated success at reducing gun-related violence,” Haywood wrote in a memo seeking co-sponsors for his legislation.
Eligible applicants would “need to include detailed plans and coordinate with existing violence prevention and intervention programs and service providers in their community,” Bullock wrote in a similar memo to her colleagues.
Pennsylvania House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, a Democrat whose West Philadelphia district has seen some of the worst of the violence, said the legislation would help across the state, not just in such large cities as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
“Support is what we need. And we are at the urgent hour,” said McClinton, who added she’d just learned that a 15-year-old girl who’d been shot in her district last week, and was “hanging on for her life,” had died on Tuesday night.
McClinton said plans also are in the works to reintroduce “red flag” legislation, which would allow a loved one or a family member to obtain a court order seizing someone’s weapons if they can show they pose a threat to themselves or to others.
In states that have them, these orders, which have due process, have been shown to reduce suicides and gun violence. The bill failed to gain a vote in last year’s legislative session.
In the meantime, activists such as Garcia will continue working, turning tragedy into action, and a prayer that another family won’t have to bury another child.
“There’s a frustrating sense of normality about murders in our country … the reality is that we are all in the crossfire,” she said. “The only way to reduce gun violence is to work together.”