In 2015, artist Scott Lapham walked into a sporting store in Rhode Island to take a 20-question true-or-false test that “any 10 year old could study for,” he said. One week and $400 later, he walked out with an AR-15. That’s all it took to get a “literal weapon of war” in Rhode Island, a state with one of the strictest gun laws in the nation, Lapham said. “It was painfully easy.”
Lapham, founder of the nonprofit One Gun Gone, was one of five panelists in an event titled “Introduction to Gun Violence Prevention” at Friedman Hall Wednesday night. The event was co-hosted by three on-campus organizations: Thoughts Prayers Action, Brown Progressive Action Committee and the Brown College Democrats.
“We wanted a way to engage Brown students who were new to Rhode Island, new to Providence in the amazing advocacy that’s going on in Providence and beyond,” said Grace Reed ’22, president of Thoughts Prayers Action. “We wanted this event (to be) a place to bring local organizers from those groups together to introduce the work they do, to excite everyone to get started this semester,” Reed added.
The five panelists represented multiple constituencies and organizations, yet, despite their diverse backgrounds, all five panelists have been impacted by gun violence in their communities.
Kat Kerwin, Providence City Council councilwoman and director of communications for the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence, said there have been three homicides on her street in the last year alone, and two involved a gun.
Survivor Lead for R.I. Moms Demand Action Diana Garlington lost her daughter in 2011 in a drive-by shooting. Five years later, she lost her brother in another shooting.
Lapham has lost four of his art students to gun violence in Providence. “You can have all of your emotional skills in play,” he said. “It doesn’t matter. It just vanishes. Nothing can prepare for that.”
The conversation evolved as the panelists shared their stories on how they turned their frustrations with gun violence into political action. “We need to elect more people that prioritize gun safety,” said R.I . State Senator and member of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence Bridget Valverde, adding that she would like to see many more gun safety reforms passed at a state level.
Rhode Island is one of several states that mandates background checks for private gun sales, a seven-day waiting period on all firearm purchases and dealers to obtain licenses, among other provisions, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Valverde was a stay-at-home mom when the Sandy Hook school shooting occurred in December 2012. While she did not personally know anybody who died, her cousins attended Sandy Hook at the time. Valverde previously lost a family member to gun suicide, and another family member accidentally shot her relative with a gun. She worries about the world her first-grade child will grow up in — a fear that inspired her to first run for state senator in 2018.
“Gun violence touches us all, directly or indirectly,” Valverde said.
Lapham uses his artistic abilities to express his emotions about gun violence. As part of his One Gun Gone nonprofit, Lapham makes artwork using molds he crafts from handguns he bought off the street, and resells them to raise money for a police-sponsored buyback program.
“The older we get, the more we notice how gun violence affects everyone around us,” said Edwin Pastor, another panelist representing One Gun Gone. As a first-generation college student whose parents are from Guatemala, he joined One Gun Gone to “teach his community, have a voice (and) be a part of something bigger.”
The conversation ended with a discussion on how to end gun violence at the grassroots level and beyond.
Garlington called for young people to take action on the local level, expressing their “disgust” for gun violence. “It’s all a matter of forming together, being unified,” she said.
“As an artist, I work in a sphere of culture,” Lapham said. “We need to change the culture, need to show facts, show that we are no safer with a gun than without.”
Pastor added that the conversation around gun violence should not end at the conclusion of the panel discussion. “Let’s have conversations like these tonight presented at other schools,” he said. “Don’t be afraid, speak up, have a voice.”
About 50 students attended the Wednesday night event, and many walked away feeling more informed about gun violence. Joshua Tharpe ’22, a Chicago native, said that he did not know that gun violence was “such a big issue in Rhode Island” and that there were organizations leading the fight against it.
Thomas O’Neill ’23 said that he “enjoyed that there were actual community leaders brought in, ones that were actively involved … in the political sphere.”
“It went really well,” said Zoe Mermelstein ’21, president of Brown College Democrats. “The stories that these activists shared were all very personal, which drives their activism. … We talk a lot of high policy, and I think its really important to see what work is going on. … at the grassroots level. It’s not something Brown students get to hear very often.”