As dusk settled on Beinecke Plaza Tuesday evening, a group of 30 students and New Haven residents lit candles in a vigil commemorating the one-year anniversary of the death of Trayvon Martin and calling for an end to gun violence plaguing inner cities across the nation.
The anniversary of Martin’s death has, at least temporarily, thrust light upon urban gun violence, which largely escaped public debate in the wake of the December school shooting in Newtown, Conn. At the same time, the lingering memory of Newtown has reshaped public understanding of the Trayvon Martin shooting, placing it as much in a framework of gun control as one of racial prejudice, which dominated previous discussions.
In 2012, George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch coordinator, killed the 17-year-old Martin while he walked through Zimmerman’s gated community in Sanford, Fla., after visiting a convenience store. Although Martin was unarmed, Zimmerman claimed that he had acted in self-defense and because of Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground Law was not charged with second-degree murder until over a month later. He is currently awaiting trial.
“The ship has turned more directly on gun control,” said Arziki Adamu ’13, president of the Yale chapter of the NAACP. “Instead of asking why George Zimmerman shot a black boy, they’re asking why George Zimmerman had a gun.”
Since the Newtown shooting, long-time advocates of gun reform have sought to translate public furor over mass shootings into change on urban gun violence. Even though Martin was killed in a suburban area, his death has become representative of what gun reform advocates have characterized as the senseless deaths of young black males due to gun violence in cities. Proponents of reform such as John DeStefano Jr. have argued that the two types of violence have fundamentally different causes and consequences.
DeStefano emphasized in a statement last month that an assault weapons ban, while important, would be unlikely to curb violence in New Haven, as most gun crimes in the Elm City are committed with handguns. Instead, DeStefano said, a gun offender registry, stricter licensing and purchasing standards and a licensing requirement for ammunition purchases would be more likely to make a significant impact.
Whether such proposals will gain traction remains uncertain, although any push for new legislation will only become more difficult as time passes and public anger fades.
“Despite the strong leadership and goodwill in Connecticut’s House and Senate, we run a risk of letting this critical moment in history pass us by,” Gov. Dannel Malloy said in a speech last Thursday. “None of us want that to happen, and none of us should let it happen.”
Malloy’s gun reform proposals, introduced last week, include universal background checks but not a gun offender registry.
Although the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission and Bipartisan Gun Violence Prevention and Children’s Safety Task Force, created in January by Malloy and the state legislature, respectively, were expected to release their findings in early February, both have yet to do so. Nevertheless, Ron Pinciaro, the executive director of Connecticut Against Gun Violence, said he remains optimistic about the possibility for significant statewide legislative change on both mass shootings and urban gun violence, adding that the Newtown shooting has ignited a “passion” among Connecticut residents who had not previously engaged in the gun debate.
“Originally that passion was directed toward the events of Newtown,” Pinciaro said. “But we are seeing it now being converted into a better understanding and awareness of the urban problem.”
Connecticut Against Gun Violence, in conjunction with the Black and Latino Caucus of the Connecticut General Assembly, will host a press conference today in Hartford on urban violence. According to Barbara Fair, a New Haven community activist who attended Tuesday’s vigil, several members of the legislature are planning on drafting a bill to target gun trafficking, which Pinciaro pointed to as one of the main contributors to urban gun violence.
At the vigil Tuesday, however, optimism on urban gun reform was scarce. Although organizers said that Newtown had shifted the conversation toward gun control, they suggested it was unlikely to result in any meaningful reform aimed at preventing urban gun violence.
“I don’t think [Newtown] has a trickle-down effect,” said Nia Holston ’14, who leads the Black Students Alliance at Yale and is a Ward 1 co-chair.
In 2011, 85 percent of the murders in New Haven were committed with guns.