IMG_8357

St. Louis school shooting focuses area leaders on threats to children from guns

ST. LOUIS — The school shooting in St. Louis this week fit a gruesome but familiar template, similar to other shootings around the nation. A 19-year-old used an AR-15 style weapon, carried more than 600 rounds of ammunition and left a teacher and child dead after his rampage. This shooting has drawn national attention, but less visible are the daily threats children face from guns in the St. Louis region, local leaders say.

As the community grieves the deaths this week at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School, that grief comes alongside a sense of growing concern over the safety of children in the city and throughout the state.

“As we mourn with Central Visual and Performing Arts, we must take action – starting by banning assault weapons.” President Joe Biden said in a tweet on Tuesday.

Speaking to reporters after the shooting, St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones noted the school shooting was only the latest in an ongoing spate of gun violence that she says the state’s gun laws make far more likely to happen.

“In St. Louis this year more than 100 children have been victims of gun violence,” Jones told reporters. “As a mother, their pain and that of their families breaks my heart.”

IMG_8386

Members of the community showed up at the Central VPA to show their respects and offer prayer to those affected. Photo by Gabrielle Hays/PBS NewsHour

While some forms of violent crime are on the decline in St. Louis according to the officials, a series of recent high-profile deaths of children by firearms has heightened the public’s awareness and concern around gun safety issues.  

In the city’s most recent update on Monday’s tragedy, Department of Health Director Dr. Mati Hlatshwayo Davis noted the day before the shooting at Central VPA “there were eight deaths due to gun violence” in the city. 

“This has created an acute and chronic crisis and trauma for our city,” the director added.

Limited gun laws

Missouri has some of the most lax gun laws in the United States. The state does not require  background checks for firearm purchases and concealed carry is allowed without a permit.

Everytown, a nonprofit gun control advocacy organization, ranks 40 other states ahead of Missouri in gun law strength. 

In response to a reporter’s question about how easy it is to get a gun in Missouri, St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department Interim police chief Michael Sack told reporters “It’s very easy … the gun laws in Missouri are very broad. [People] can carry them openly down any street and there’s really nothing we can do,” he said. “If someone walks down a main street with a rifle we’ve got no cause to go talk to them.” 

State politicians weighed in on Monday’s tragedy, though their sentiments differed among party lines. Republicans, including Gov. Mike Parson and Attorney General Eric Schmitt offered thoughts and prayers in social media posts and acknowledged the role of the local police department for quickly stopping the shooter. Democratic Rep. Cori Bush called the shooting “unconscionable and inexcusable,” while several local Democratic lawmakers called for stricter gun legislation. 

U.S. Senate candidate Trudy Busch-Valentine, Schmitt’s opponent in the race, noted in a statement that she is “committed to doing everything I can in the United States Senate to pass common-sense gun safety measures.” 

Back in June, Republican Sen. Roy Blunt, whose seat Busch and Schmitt are vying for, backed bipartisan efforts to prevent mass shootings which included incentives for states with red flag laws and increased background checks, among other things. However, it still had looser regulations on access than legislation passed by the House. Blunt’s support garnered backlash from state Republican lawmakers who signed a letter saying the legislation authorized “forcible seizure of firearms from people without requiring them to be convicted of a crime.”  

Leaders push for safety

“While the state legislature prohibits us from making our own common sense gun safety laws, St. Louisans can take steps as responsible gun owners to protect our families and communities,” Mayor Jones said, reiterating that residents should keep guns away from children and keep them unloaded and secured with a gun lock.  

Jones’ repeated plea is a common refrain from local officials in efforts to curb the number of gun deaths –  specifically among children. In early September, St. Louis Public Schools superintendent Kelvin Adams delivered an emotional address to the board of education and the city after three young people were shot in one weekend. 

“The reason for those updates is always difficult because I’m conveying to them information about some tragedy that has impacted a student or students. More often than not, it is a tragedy that has occurred as a result of some violence or a violent act – usually as a result of a gun,” he said.

The superintendent explained that that weekend, one high school student was shot and killed, another was shot in the neck after arriving home and an elementary school student was shot in the back.

“I’m just wishing and praying we were more ashamed of how we seem to devalue lives of our most precious resources – not gold, not silver, not money, but children and students,” Adams said. 

The poignant moment is featured prominently in a video on the Educators for Gun Safety website. The organization, launched in April, is comprised of nearly 70 schools – both public and charter – urging the communities around them to treat gun violence affecting  children as a top priority. On the site, they connect people with student stories, places to get gun locks and messages from city leaders, including Mayor Jones. 

St. Louis Public Schools is a participant in the organization, and no one knows the importance behind why it exists better than Tracey Moore. 

Moore has served as a social worker at Compton Drew ILC Middle School on St. Louis’ south side since 2017. It’s one of two hats she wears working at the district; she also serves as a crisis team lead on one of six teams serving St. Louis Public Schools. The teams are made up of social workers and counselors who, when notified that a student has died, are deployed into the school to notify and support the students – and sometimes teachers, too. 

“Some of our scholars are numb to people dying violently,” Moore said. “Like, they’re numb to it. And I always tell, especially here at Compton Drew, the scholars all the time  [that’s] not normal.”

The impact of gun related violence is something she has had to specifically help her students navigate since she started as a social worker eight years ago. But something about these last couple of years feel different for her, not just in St. Louis City but across the greater metro area.

“We’ve had too many of our scholars who have been killed or murdered, but they were always like teenagers. But right now we’re starting to see this trend where they’re getting younger,” Moore said.

IMG_8003

Tracey Moore serves as a crisis team lead for St. Louis Public Schools. However, on a daily basis she is ensuring her students have food and clothes too. Photo by Gabrielle Hays/PBS NewsHour

In 2021, St. Louis City reported homicides and violent crimes had taken a dip. The St. Louis Police Department reported 199 homicides that year, more than 24 percent less than the 263 in 2020. 

Moore said while those drops do matter, young people are still dying, and one child, whether they are 16 years old or 6 years old, is one too many.

“A 16-year-old is still someone’s baby,” she told the NewsHour.

While part of Moore’s job is notifying schools of a child’s passing, she also helps students cope with gun violence and other traumatic experiences.

Each semester she leads a grief support group for students who have difficulty navigating their emotions. Over the years, she has kept details of the experiences her scholars are working to heal from.

“I’ve noticed that the list of names that I have, the majority of the deaths that they have been the most impacted by was because this person died by gunfire,” Moore told the NewsHour.

Those conversations, whether in the classroom or in her grief group can be challenging, especially for younger students.

“We put it into terms where a six- or seven-year-old will understand, like you have to explain to them that [a victim] won’t be back in school ever,” she said. 

Moore, who says she inherited a gun from her grandfather, says her issue is not with people owning guns but with the reckless use of them– with the number of children being injured and dying from guns.

“I’m all for if you want to be a gun owner, I’m for that. Whatever you want to do with your life, I just want everybody to be responsible,” she said. 

Though she acknowledges gun locks are a safety measure, Moore told the NewsHour she fears the people who need locks are not coming to get them. “People who are using these guns to carjack and rob and steal and shoot others [are] not trying to go turn in a gun. They’re not trying to use a gun lock. That’s the piece that needs to be worked on. The amount of guns on the streets is ridiculous.” 

“I will change the world”

Recently, Moore says the state has seen a number of accidental shooting deaths. According to Everytown, in the U.S. “there were at least 2,070 unintentional shootings by children under 18 years old between January 1, 2015, and December 31, 2020, resulting in 765 deaths and 1,366 injuries.” If you type “accidental shooting Missouri” into a search engine, the results show stories of young people all over the state dying as a result of a gun going off accidently. 

One of those stories is especially close to Francine Strain’s heart. In some ways, it’s her story, too.

“He loved green for a while ‘cause I bought him some green tennis shoes when he was little. But as he got older, he started liking red, so that’s why we got to do the balloons,” she said.

Strain is talking about her grandson who died in March from an accidental gunshot wound. Six months later, on St. Louis’ west side her family celebrated what would have been her grandson LaFrance Johnson’s 13th birthday. They decided to give out gun locks at the party, and for every lock they gave out, a red balloon was released into the air. 

IMG_8022

Strain says her 12-year-old grandson was a lover of Oreo cookies, playing video games and being kind. Photo by Gabrielle Hays/PBS NewsHour

Strain remembers the day Johnson died the way she remembers most.

“‘France, it’s that time,’” Strain recalls saying to him. Her 12-year-old grandson was a lover of Oreo cookies, playing video games and being kind. Like any other day, she got him off to school that morning. Once the day ended she returned home to find Johnson and his younger brother gone. She’d later learn they had gone to their aunt’s home to get their hair cut. 

About 15 minutes after learning where the boys went, Strain said she got another call from one of her daughters. 

“It was hard for me to process with the crying,” she told the NewsHour. Her daughter, who was at the scene, handed the phone to an officer who told her to meet them at the aunt’s home.

Strain remembers asking the officer where LaFrance was. Their reply, she says, told her everything she needed to know. 

“I knew. I knew. I said, if they’re not on their way [already], to take him to the hospital. Yeah, it’s fatal. I knew,” she said.

IMG_8019

Strain said her family decided to pass out gunlocks at her grandson’s funeral and to honor his birthday. Photo by Gabrielle Hays/PBS NewsHour

LaFrance died instantly after his brother picked up a gun which discharged accidentally.

The loss, though heavy, motivated Strain to mobilize her community and share her story, with Educators for Gun Safety.

“I just felt in my heart, this just can’t be it. It just can’t be. And then I heard on the news where another child, accidentally murdered,” she said.

Strain and her family decided to hand out gun locks at Johnson’s funeral and again at his birthday party with the help of the St. Louis Police Department, where balloons were released in his memory. 

“I’m going to do what I can do….because of the love that I have for LaFrance,” Strain said.

IMG_7941

Strain says she wants to do the very thing printed on her grandson’s favorite red shirt: to change the world. Photo by Gabrielle Hays/PBS NewsHour

In planning to honor his birthday she pored over many pictures of her late grandson – snapshots of him celebrating his 7th birthday and some of him with his siblings. But there was one picture that stuck out the most: A picture of Johnson in a red shirt that read “I will change the world.”

That one picture, Strain said, sums up her mission for the rest of her life.

“I need to support him trying to change the world.”