Reasons why some turn to picking up guns were discussed by a panel of community leaders during a forum hosted by Switch Lanes at the Christian Faith Fellowship Church in Waukegan on Saturday.
Former gang member Anthony McIntyre runs the Switch Lanes organization, which tries to steer young gang members away from crime through intervention.
On Saturday, McIntyre had more than 10 guest panelists, including Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran, Waukegan Police Deputy Chief Gabe Guzman and Sara Knizhnik of Moms Demand Action, to speak to a crowd he said was smaller than he had hoped.
Close to 50 people attended.
As the moderator, McIntyre began by posing the question of whether guns on the streets are really the problem the community faces, or are deeper issues behind gun crimes.
Jennifer Witherspoon, who oversees programming at the Lake County jail, kicked off the discussion by answering, “I state unequivocally that it’s deeper than that.”
High poverty, poor education and no male role models are all reasons Witherspoon believes young men are turning to crime on the streets.
Easy access to guns only exacerbates that problem, Knizhnik said.
She suggested ways people can change that by reminding those in the audience to call their government representatives in support of an upcoming Senate bill called the Gun Dealer Licensing Act, which would regulate gun dealers more stringently by making sure inspections are carried out regularly at gun businesses, among other things.
Knizhnik also put out an invitation to join the group, which works to demand action from legislators to establish common sense gun reform.
The organization has chapters in all 50 states, and began as a grassroots movement in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in 2012.
“We’re extremely effective in Lake County. What’s missing right now are members of your community,” Knizhnik told the audience.
Posing a different view was Waukegan activist Keith Turner, who spoke out against more legislation for gun dealers and owners, and instead blamed gun violence on individuals.
“Personal accountability ultimately is the problem,” Turner said, adding that guns are inanimate objects.
Turner said focusing on legislation that makes legal gun sales stricter, “will only affect people who can legally purchase a gun,” not the young men who are getting guns illegally to use to commit crimes, Turner said.
The issue quickly moved to racism, and many on the panel and in the audience agreed that a legal system that in the past has disproportionally jailed black fathers, taking them out of the home, is to be blamed, at least partially, for the lack of male role models.
“The single greatest common denominator for making society’s problems is the absence of a nuclear family,” Curran said.
Lake County Board member Vance Wyatt said it’s true that there aren’t many black male role models to look up to, even in the community.
“If we have no one to look up to, no one to aspire to be like, that’s how you get the school-to-prison pipeline,” Wyatt said.
Taking the issue of racism a step further, civil and criminal attorney Jed Stone was adamant that there is no easy answer to the question McIntyre posed, but as someone who has been representing young men who commit gun crimes for 40 years, he believes racism definitely plays a part in the cause.
“The people who are getting shot are poor, black, brown, and the reason why our legislature doesn’t respond is because people don’t care; they’re expendables,” Stone said. “It’s time we recognize that race is an issue in America.”
Due to rain during the event, McIntyre said some were watching through social media live recordings of the discussions.
Midway through the discussion, McIntyre told the panel he was getting many texts from viewers upset that Guzman referred to men who commit gun crimes as “thugs” and were offended by the term.
Others in the audience agreed that labels were offensive, and created a wider rift between police and community.
“Shame on you,” Stone told Guzman.
“Thugs are getting guns from each other,” Guzman had said earlier in the conversation.
Later he defended his comments.
“My viewpoint of gang members is that they are thugs. If that offends you, I apologize,” Guzman said. “But people who shoot others are thugs.”
Guzman added that he didn’t know what the youth in Waukegan had to deal with, but he’s open to learn and said he welcomes any invitation for dialogue.
“Show me the other side, because my perspective is one-sided,” Guzman said.
Waukegan school board member Anita Hanna spoke up to say she was disappointed to look around the room and see that, “those that need to be here are not here.”
School board member Brandon Ewing also attended and many times tried to speak but was unable to, as the panel grew to add more people.
During the back and forth from panelist and audience, McIntyre gave a warning about the contents of a folder he passed around with graphic photos of gun-shot wounds on dead bodies of men and children.
McIntyre reminded the room that the goal of the forum was to come up with solutions. He said more jobs and more opportunities for education are ways in which Switch Lanes is working toward a better community.
Waukegan Mayor Sam Cunningham spoke last and said the children of Waukegan are the entire city’s responsibility.
Growing up without a father, he knew other parents in the neighborhood were looking out for him, and they made sure his mother knew about any trouble he got into, Cunningham said.
“When a mother and a father aren’t in the house, the community should step in,” Cunningham said.
McIntyre resolved that Switch Lanes would continue to focus on education, economic development, entrepreneurship and legal justice, to target vulnerable young men in the city.
He said in January the organization will start to offer computer literacy classes at their office at 2424 Washington St.
Yadira Sanchez Olson is a freelance reporter for the News-Sun.