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Gun Violence: A Turning Point?

Here is what the shooting deaths of two young people on St. Thomas last week look like from a distance. On a human level, two lives have been senselessly lost. One of those lives, that of a young tourist girl, will inevitably be seen as being more important than the other. First, she was a complete innocent, wrong place at the wrong time, collateral damage in our national disgrace of gun violence. For her family and friends, there will be a permanent empty space in their lives. They will never be the same.
For local people, the human part will probably fade quickly. I have always been struck by the capacity of Virgin Islanders to “otherize” outsiders, and I suspect this case will be no different.
There is a second level on which the impact of this shooting is likely to be more lasting, and it may represent a turning point. Trends are often important, especially if responsible people spot them and take action. Gun violence in the territory seems to be spreading outward. It is no longer confined to certain areas and to “them” shooting one another. This terrible incident is an example of the outward spread, as was the recent gun battle at a shopping mall. But this one has the potential for a major economic hit, and that may provide the hook for needed action that will make everyone safer in the future.
I do not understand in the slightest the decision-making processes of the cruise ship industry. But, if it is typical of others, it goes something like this: the first time makes us nervous; the second time makes us very nervous; and, if there is a third time, that’s it. Frederiksted is not Charlotte Amalie, but it does not take a genius to see the parallels. And anyone who thinks that Charlotte Amalie is an absolute “must see” for cruise ship passengers is deluding themselves. It is not.
Waiting for things to blow over will be exactly the wrong approach in a situation like this, because it leaves criminal elements with the leverage to severely damage the Territory’s economy. God knows that they have already done sufficient damage to the quality of life of Virgin Islanders.
So what can be done? This was an outrageous act on several levels. But everything in our experience tells us that outrage, however justified, is light work. It has little lasting value and often becomes a substitute for taking real action. There has to be substantive and thoughtful change that is sustained over a long period of time. And if there is no will to bring about such change, take a look at Ciudad Juarez in Mexico for a picture of one alternative future.
In the short run, this is about getting guns off the streets and out of communities. That is the job of the police, with –or without – the support of the community. Given what is at stake, every tool available within the Constitution should be used. If there are complaints, as there almost certainly will be, the complainers should come equipped with a better approach. And if there is a desire to create a true memorial to the young girl who died, let it be a safer community for both residents and tourists alike.
In the long run, there is a need to address the pressing needs of young Virgin Islanders mired in hopelessness and lacking any positive direction. This is the time for the big talkers to actually do something. It will be a long, difficult slog and will involve spending money and building programs that do not exist today for a group of young people that many adults – often with good reason – do not like much.
Community peace and getting guns out of the wrong people’s hands are related issues, but they are not the same thing. The Virgin Islands needs a peace movement. Without changing the circumstances of young Virgin Islanders, that is unlikely to happen.
Given recent developments, there is a chance that what is happening is the beginning of a downward spiral, fueled by our country’s horrible gun policies. These national policies are not going to change, but rather than throwing our hands up in despair, there is a need to find other solutions. None of these solutions is simple, quick or cheap, except compared to the human and dollar costs and consequences of the current gun-related carnage.
In any positive scenario, getting guns off the streets must be the starting point. If that doesn’t happen, good luck.

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