In January 2015, Aleida Garcia’s son, Alex Rojas Garcia, a student at Temple University, was shot 15 times and left for dead on a cold and lonely street in Philadelphia.
In the six years since, Aleida Garcia has taken her tragedy and turned it into fuel for a crusade to fight the scourge of gun violence in her hometown. Alex’s wasn’t the first gun death in Philadelphia, and it won’t be the last. But every victim, and every survivor has a story to tell, she said.
“All of these people had names, families, and the right to live,” Garcia, the co-founder and president of the Philadelphia-based National Homicide Justice Alliance said Wednesday during a conference call sponsored by the anti-gun violence group CeaseFirePa. “For the past six years, I have immersed myself in all aspects of gun violence prevention and response. I’ve told my story countless times, but if it will save lives, I will tell it again and again.”
Already an epidemic in Pennsylvania’s largest city, Philadelphia was wracked by gun violence in 2020, even as COVID-19 raged through the city and the rest of the state. Philadelphia logged 499 homicides last year, the victims overwhelmingly Black and Brown. In the first 79 days of 2021, the city already has seen 59 homicides, she said.
On Wednesday, Garcia joined with U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa.; U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans, D-3rd District; state Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, and House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, whose West Philadelphia district has seen some of the worst of the violence, to call for a coordinated federal, state, and local response to reduce gun violence, and to provide services to victims and survivors.
Casey, of Scranton, and Evans, of Philadelphia, are teaming up on legislation aimed at helping gun violence survivors and the families of victims navigate the tangle of federal programs they need to access for the mental, medical, legal, and financial support they need.
“Government is a complicated place to turn for a lot of Americans,” Casey said, adding that access to “the resources and support they should have a right to expect,” should be easy and uncomplicated. Gun violence survivors often suffer life-changing injuries, and should get the help they need.
“They might need a ramp, a refitted kitchen, or grab bars in the showers,” Casey said. “These are necessary and they are costly. People who have been victims of gun violence need to know where to turn.”
While Casey and Evans are pursuing a legislative solution with an inter-branch council, likely within the Justice Department, that would provide such assistance, Evans also has called on the Biden administration to take executive action to provide that same assistance.
“We both agree on the sense of urgency and we recognize that something has to be done now,” Evans said. “And we share that mission. After hearing the voices we hear — every day, and that’s not acceptable any longer. We will use our efforts jointly.”
Gun violence reduction efforts have historically hit a brick wall in Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled General Assembly. And the issue vanished entirely from the Legislature’s radar as lawmakers and the Democratic Wolf administration struggled to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the violence continued, both in the streets, and in homes, where people living with domestic violence found themselves trapped at home with their abusers. As was the case with opioid abuse, this epidemic within the pandemic was ever-present.
Pennsylvania law requires people convicted of domestic abuse to surrender their weapons within 24 hours of a sentence being pronounced. But efforts to pass a law authorizing “extreme risk protection orders,” or “red flag” laws that would allow someone to seek a court order seizing someone’s weapons if they pose a risk to themselves or others, failed to win passage in the Legislature. That’s despite the fact that they’ve been proven to work in the states that have them.
“Support is what we need. And we are at the urgent hour,” said McClinton, who added she’d just learned that a 15-year-old girl who’d been shot in her district last week, and was “hanging on for her life,” had died on Tuesday night.
“We’re faced with it over and over again,” she said, not just in Philadelphia, but in our smaller cities, like Allentown. We know that suicide is a leading cause of death in rural Pennsylvania. It hits all of our homes.”
In the Legislature, state Sen. Art Haywood, and Rep. Donna Bullock, both Philadelphia Democrats, are sponsoring bills that would create a state-funded grant program that would pay for “community-based violence reduction initiatives with demonstrated success at reducing gun-related violence,” Haywood wrote in a memo seeking co-sponsors for his legislation.
The legislators’ plan, if approved, would appropriate $30 million and authorize the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency to oversee the grant program, according to a memo Bullock circulated among her House colleagues. Eligible applicants would “need to include detailed plans and coordinate with existing violence prevention and intervention programs and service providers in their community,” she wrote.
McClinton, the House Democrats’ floor leader, said plans also are in the works to reintroduce the “red flag” bill that failed to win passage in last year’s legislative session. Both she and Costa agreed that the issue has taken on new urgency amid reports of the plight of domestic violence survivors during the pandemic.
“I do think there may be more of an appetite now in light of what we’re seeing and hearing,” Costa said, even as he acknowledged that Democrats will have to “work to change minds” among skeptical Republicans. But “if the matter gets to the Senate floor, it will pass.
“It’s reasonable. It’s responsible. It’s the kind of commonsense reform we need in Harrisburg,” he said.
After decades under the Capitol dome, Costa has to know that Harrisburg is a town that often defies common sense.
In the meantime, however, activists such as Garcia will continue working, turning tragedy into action, and a prayer that another family won’t have to bury another child.
“There’s a frustrating sense of normality about murders in our country … the reality is that we are all in the crossfire,” she said. “The only way to reduce gun violence is to work together.”