Roanoke’s elected officials want help: How can the city reduce gun violence?

Council members announced this week they are forming a coalition of residents who seek to curb violence, particularly from firearms.

“It seems as though these senseless shootings and the gun violence, it will not go away,” an exasperated Sherman Lea said last month when the city council received its annual public safety updates. “Until we come together on this, I’m afraid. I’m afraid for citizens, for victims, possible people who could become victims in this senseless wild, wild west.”

From 2018 through Jan. 30, 2019, Roanoke police recorded 48 shootings in which someone was hit by gunfire, Chief Tim Jones told the council. While the department didn’t offer year-to-year comparisons on this statistic, the reports of gun-related violence resonated.

“Every weekend we get a report of somebody getting shot,” Lea said.

After the briefing, Vice Mayor Joe Cobb met with Lea and City Manager Bob Cowell to discuss how the council could bring people together to reduce gun violence. The coalition is inspired in part by the Collective Response, an 80-strong group of people in law enforcement, public health, social services and other fields that formed in September to address the region’s drug addiction crisis.

“I want to urge council, to the extent that we can, to create a similar Collective Response that we have done to the opioid crisis, to address gun violence. It’s beyond time for us to do this,” Cobb said at last month’s council meeting. “Citizens are asking to be a part of it, to help. I think it’s our responsibility to take that leadership, to figure out how best to make it work in collaboration with all the parties.”

Cobb said he hopes to compile a list of names and agencies over the next couple of weeks and start initial talks before the end of the month. Cobb and Councilwoman Michelle Davis have put out calls on social media to gather new voices. Davis said that was partly “to get different people in the room,” compared to the usual suspects who busy themselves with city affairs.

Davis said “this isn’t just about guns,” noting that the group would address “violent crimes in general.” By providing a forum for people to exchange ideas, the city can bring “one voice” to next session’s General Assembly deliberations, if the group decides state action is needed.

(Earlier this year, the legislature failed to pass Roanoke’s proposal to let localities ban firearms at government meetings.)

“People really feel like they are helpless when it comes to making change,” Davis said. “You know there’s only so much we can do on a local level.”

Besides considering possible legislative fixes, Cobb said he’s encouraged by artsy ways to bring awareness to the issue. He cited grants from the shoe company TOMS that have gone toward murals about gun violence — including one in Cobb’s hometown of Wichita, Kansas.

“Those kind of innovative, creative projects approach this from a different angle that catches people’s attention in a way it might not otherwise,” he said. “When we work together we can sometimes creates solutions that have a broader reach and have a broader impact than we can individually.”

Cobb and Davis said they weren’t aware of any collective undertaking the city has tried before on the issue of guns and violence.

In May 2017, Roanoke leaders and residents marched down Moorman Avenue Northwest after a shooting left children scrambling for cover. Marchers held a banner reading “Roanoke City Unites Against Violence” while neighbors waved.

The year before, residents packed a church to talk about gun violence. Those conversations were prompted by the death of 11-year-old Khalil Burt, who was shot by a 10-year-old boy.

Anyone interested in being part of the effort may contact Cobb at joseph.cobb@roanokeva.gov or 580-9645.

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