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As an X-ray technician at UF Health Shands Trauma Center, Krystal Lovelace has heard dozens of stories of families waking up to that late-night phone call bringing tragic news.
Lovelace’s came March 9. The caller said her boyfriend of 11 years, Montez Davis, 31, had been shot and killed outside Eighth Avenue Food Store on Northeast Eighth Avenue in Gainesville.
“I never knew the pain these people really experienced until now,” Lovelace, 35, the mother of Davis’ three children, said through tears recently.
Lovelace said she has found solace in joining the local chapter of Moms Demand Action, a nationwide organization fighting for public safety measures to protect people from gun violence. The chapter will host a meeting Monday night with officials from the Gainesville Police Department in the wake of an increase this year in gun-related crime in the city.
“To take someone’s life is undeniable and unforgivable,” Lovelace said. “It’s important to be aware of what can happen to other families when you make these kinds of decisions.”
The meeting will be held at 6:30 p.m. at the Alachua County Library District Headquarters branch, 401 E. University Ave.
“Being a violence prevention organization, we wanted to figure out how we could help in some way in the community,” chapter leader Amanda Welch said.
Welch said the organization planned to present environmental and infrastructure solutions, including that the city makes sure that neighborhood street lights work at night, cleaning up public parks and giving the community “a nice place for people to hang out.”
Gainesville Police Chief Tony Jones addressed the city’s high crime rate at a recent news conference. According to GPD, as of June 20 there were 139 reported crimes to GPD in which a handgun was present, and 54% of those crimes involved someone between ages 18 and 24.
Jovanna Liuzzo, 19, a recent graduate of Eastside High School, founded and leads Students Demand Action, a subchapter of Moms Demand Action for high school and college students.
Liuzzo said the spike in firearm crime, particularly in East Gainesville, has deeper causes, such as poverty and poor education. “If you don’t have what you need, you’re going to turn to other things as resources that shouldn’t be,” she said.
In January 2018, the University of Florida Bureau of Economic and Business Research (BEBR) released a study titled “Understanding Racial Inequality in Alachua County.”
According to the report, black households in Gainesville have the lowest average household income per capita, at $26,561 per year. They also have the highest rate of exposure to poverty. The report also found black households typically live near the poorest-performing schools.
Eden Sherwood, 19, a psychology major at UF who graduated from Eastside High in 2018, said poor education and lower incomes feed into gun violence. “The schools in general aren’t that great,” Sherwood said, “and I think poverty has a pretty large impact, for sure.”
Katie Browder, a local Moms Demand Action volunteer, said crime would decrease in East Gainesville if more job opportunities, better public transportation and better retail infrastructure, such as grocery stores, existed in its neighborhoods. “There are ways to change the environment in the community by cleaning up areas and promoting community building,” Browder said.
Liuzzo said another contributing factor is the community’s strained relationship between law enforcement. GPD officials advocate the “See Something, Say Something,” campaign, which encourages the public to come forward to police if they witness suspicious activity. But Liuzzo said she thinks that “can be really difficult to abide by,” especially as a young person.
“Kids could be worried, thinking, ‘If I report something, maybe they’ll take me in anyway,’” she said.
Welch said the conversation should not only focus on East Gainesville, but the city at large.
“We talk a lot about gun violence in marginalized communities, because that’s important,” she said. “But it affects everybody in town.”
In other regions across Florida, Moms Demand Action groups have met with local law enforcement officials to propose solutions. Adrienne Egolf, 36, the Moms Demand Action group leader for Orlando, attributed violent crime in her area to what she called systemic problems.
“If we’re talking specifically about gun crime, stolen guns (are) a really big problem,” she said.
Egolf said unlocked vehicles storing firearms have increased access in the community, an issue plaguing Gainesville as well. GPD reports that 17 guns have been stolen from such cars in 2019.
The Orlando Police Department hosts amnesty days in which the public can forfeit weapons, no questions asked, Egolf said.
In Tallahassee, according to group leader Katie Kile, a “strike force” comprised of local, state and federal law enforcement officers is recovering stolen firearms from known offenders.
“I think it (the strike force) shows the community that they are taking the issue very seriously,” Kile said.