ZAKARIN BRINGS ORGANIZING EDGE TO ANTI-GUN VIOLENCE GROUP
By Katie Lannan
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, AUG. 13, 2019.....Ruth Zakarin spent a recent Saturday afternoon at a cookout, held by the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute.
The institute, which works with families and communities affected by homicide, called the Aug. 3 event its "Peace B'Que," with music, food and games. Zakarin, the new executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence, said it was a day of "really fabulous energy."
"I was there feeling like this is a celebration of community, this is a celebration of survivorship, and this is a really great space to be in," Zakarin said. "And then at the end of the event I saw a news alert on my phone about the first mass shooting, and then of course 13 hours later there was another one."
A gunman who told police he was targeting Mexicans killed 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas that Saturday morning, and early the next morning another shooter killed nine people in Dayton, Ohio.
In Chicago that same weekend, a combination of shootings and car crashes kept Mount Sinai Hospital so busy that it temporarily stopped accepting new patients. During the 72-hour period between 10 a.m. on Friday, Aug. 2 and Monday, Aug. 5, Boston police reported three non-fatal shootings.
"For me, it was about holding all of that, knowing that the violence in Chicago, the violence that we've been experiencing in Boston, unfortunately, wasn't making the news in the same way as the mass shootings were," Zakarin said. "I wanted to make sure we stay grounded in that because that's the violence that's happening all the time, but then I also wanted to stay grounded in the fact that we have these programs here in Boston that are doing amazing work bringing communities together in peaceful ways, and that's how we're going to make this different."
The Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence launched in 2013, after 26 people were killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn. Zakarin in May became the group's first executive director, and one of its first two paid staffers, along with a community organizer.
The coalition played a role in the state's 2014 gun law reform and in last year's "red flag" law allowing family or household members to petition for removal of the guns of someone deemed to be a danger.
Looking ahead, the coalition has tapped a gun data bill as its priority for the 2019-2020 session and, Zakarin said, is also turning more attention to community organizing.
"We're sort of growing up into a whole new era for the coalition, having full-time staff," she said. "The coalition, I think, has been most well-known and focused on legislative advocacy and continuing to strengthen the laws that keep us safe from gun violence here in the state, but also came to recognize that you can't legislate every aspect of gun violence prevention, particularly when you think about the violence that happens in the streets of Boston every day."
The coalition and its members this year decided to advocate for funding in the state budget for programs including youth jobs, trauma response and intervention with at-risk youth, all of which the coalition says address root causes of urban gun violence.
Zakarin, who previously worked with survivors of domestic and sexual violence, said that part of the coalition's role is to help the public "connect some of those dots more" about what types of programs can prevent gun violence.
She pointed to work done by the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, the leadership opportunities College Bound Dorchester provides for youth who have been violence-involved, and the mattress recycling program at Lowell's UTEC, which gives participants an activity to get engaged in and a way to earn money.
Zakarin said the coalition will also work with young people to find out what they want policymakers to know.
"We know that urban youth of color are disproportionately affected by gun violence," she said. "We also know that they are disproportionately marginalized from these conversations, so to be able to bring them into the conversation, empower them to speak out, give them opportunities to be here at the State House themselves...I think that's really powerful."
In June, the coalition joined the student-led advocacy group March for Our Lives Boston for a lobby day in support of the gun trace data bill filed by Rep. Marjorie Decker and Sen. Cynthia Creem.
Under the 2014 law, Massachusetts already collects data on guns connected to crimes. Creem and Decker's bill (S 1388/H 2045) would require public safety officials to report on gun sale patterns, the sources of firearms used in crimes, and the effectiveness of current laws around reporting lost and stolen guns.
The legislation is among 70 firearms-related bills set to come before the Committee on Public Safety for an Aug. 28 hearing. Other bills on the agenda deal with topics including gun storage, gun licensing and fees, 3-D printed weapons, ammunition, and imitation firearms.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo said earlier this summer that he expects "further conversation" on gun laws this session, flagging the issues of tracing weapons, guns coming into Massachusetts from out-of-state, and school safety.
DeLeo said at the June 10 opening of the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Gun Violence Prevention that "legislation relating to firearms and supporting behavioral health among young people" would be part of the discussion, and that a group of lawmakers -- Reps. Chynah Tyler, Liz Miranda, Andy Vargas and Dan Cullinane -- were "already hard at work on this issue."
Zakarin, who has twin 17-year-old children, said it will be important to listen to young people in determining next steps in gun violence prevention.
"As the mother of teenagers, I can tell you that's the generation that's going to make us different," she said. "They have great energy, they have great drive, they want to sort of cut through all the conversation and get stuff done."
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