Newark has had a record-breaking violent summer this year — the most violent in a decade — but the neighborhoods has always been more violent than residents would like. Gun violence has become so pervasive that it is regular for teenagers and those in their early twenties to be involved in shootings — just this past Sunday two young men were killed in separate shootings.
Obviously, the things which lead a city down this road accumulate over many years, are numerous and often quite elusive; a multidimensional issue like youth violence begins to feel too large and unapproachable, especially when one looks for the answer to ‘solve it all’. Perhaps that is why the anti-violence grassroots group Stop Shootin’ Inc. decided to do the one thing they could: get out in the neighborhood and actively promote change, starting with the youngest generation.
Called Stop Shootin’ Music, it was a festival-style event where the group played anti-violence themed music (I’m sure it was still catchy and hip) and asked kids to bring in their toy guns — or any weapon — for an exchange. Kids could trade in their guns for a choice of many non-violence-themed toys such as a hockey stick and puck, Barbie dolls, electric cars, headphones, and the like. A program called Book’em Newark also donated one age-appropriate book per child, so a toy gun ended up getting each kid quite a lot of goodies! South Ward Councilman Ras Baraka has vehemently supported the Book’Em compaign: “Literacy is probably the No. 1 deterrent to crime that gets under-talked about, under-resourced, under-utilized. Literacy is key. Populations of cities that have low crime have high literacy and high civic engagement.”
The idea seems like a great way to promote a positive way of thinking about something that has been tearing the neighborhood apart for years. However, psychologists say gun play is not associated with violent behavior later in life, and that kids will always find a way to act this way, toy prop or not, because it is a way to practice social scenarios, including problem-solving.
Some people and websites have responded negatively to the initiative, outright bashing it as a waste of time in the piece itself or talking about its futility in the comments, saying that a gun is a simple tool until put into the hands of a person who chooses its action. Some want to see action taken on the bigger issues, like single-parent homes, schools and a welfare state — but those are not issues that a grassroots group can effectively tackle, and especially not “solve” — in my opinion, the Toy Gun Exchange is an effective stab at a problem that feels as large as its constituent parts.
The Stop Shootin’ Music Toy Gun Exchange Program was a great way to catch both kids’ and parents’ attention. It may very well be the case that parenting plays a role in the way toy guns are eventually perceived by the child, and that most of the time toy gun play has nothing to do with choices down the road — bullying and abuse have been linked to violence later on — but it is still the case that this program might have a benefit. Although kids can and probably will use that hockey stick they got as a weapon, as some commentators have suggested, the dialogue about guns took place and has been added to their personal understanding of the issue.
Adult guidance may be lacking for some children in a neighborhood where gun violence prevails — hearing news about shootings, stories about young man possible ‘suceeding’ at gun fights or any other such gun-related conversation could skew the perceptions of a child; reminders like the Gun Exchange may be worthwhile and timely for certain individuals. In the very least, I admire Stop Shootin’ for the brainpower and organizational power they have put into the event. Surely a child who has been given a book is a not a child at a loss.
The program’s effect may not be traceable years from now, but perhaps this can catch on as a yearly tradition and eventually peter out as the toy becomes less popular. Newark Mayor Cory Booker says: “This is really what our community needs. We don’t just need police, law enforcement, we need really activism in our community, taking back our streets, taking back our neighborhoods.”
Let’s hear what your opinion is!