Columbia conference to take up gun violence, youth


Thirteen-year-old Donte Harrington lives in Columbia now, but the former Baltimore resident remains deeply affected by the gun violence he experienced in the city.

"I'm afraid of getting shot," said Donte, who lost a stepsister to gunfire in the city and was threatened with firearms in Baltimore on three separate occasions. "It's too bad out there."

Because gun violence is increasingly a suburban as well as an urban phenomenon, a statewide gun control group has chosen Columbia as the site of today's "Taking Action on Gun Violence" conference. The daylong event is intended to help prevent gun violence among young people.

"We want young people to know they can play an important role in this issue of gun violence prevention," said Nancy Fenton, director of educational programs for Baltimore-based Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse (MAHA), which promotes comprehensive gun-control legislation.

The workshop, from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the Meeting House in Columbia's Village of Oakland Mills, is in line with the county's own efforts to prevent the spread of gun violence to Howard County, said County Executive Charles I. Ecker, the event's guest speaker.

"This senseless killing of our youth and injuring of our youth, we have to do something," he said. "I think it's a problem that all of us have to work on -- young and old. . . . I believe in education and prevention rather than remediation."

Howard County police Pfc. Bruce Lohr, who will sit in on an adult discussion of violence, agreed. To keep the rate of violence low in the county, he said, "We have to have that awareness out there."

Each day in the United States, 15 children younger than age 19 are killed from firearms, including homicides, suicides and unintentional killings, according to statistics for 1993, Mrs. Fenton said. She noted that 170 young people under the age of 21 were killed in Maryland with firearms that same year.

Teen-agers are at greatest risk of becoming victims of gun violence," she said.

Though Howard County's rate of violence may be lower than that in other places, serious juvenile crimes -- including some that involve guns -- jumped 23 percent in 1994 from 1993.

Last month, an 18-year-old was charged with attempted first-degree murder and assault with intent to murder in the shooting of a 17-year-old Columbia youth outside his apartment in Columbia's Hickory Ridge village. Police suspect the shooting was over a girl.

Mrs. Fenton said it's important that young people be included in anti-violence efforts.

Two weeks ago, MAHA formed its 10-member statewide Youth Advisory Council to encourage youths to take the gun-control issue into their schools and communities. The new group is funded by a $20,000 grant from the Aaron and Lillie Straus Foundation and a $5,000 grant from the Abell Foundation.

"They can go back to their schools and generate interest and set up chapters similar to SADD [Students Against Drunk Driving]," Mrs. Fenton said.

She said she would like young people who attend today's conference to join the "core group" of the youth anti-gun-violence advocates.

About 100 young people and 50 adults are expected to attend the free event.

In addition to Mr. Ecker, speakers will include a producer from the Nickelodeon cable TV network's "Nick News" and representatives of Mothers Against Gun Violence, the Maryland PTA and Baltimore's Save Another Youth.

Workshops for young people will be held on how to spread the anti-violence message, including becoming effective lobbyists, writing public service announcements and producing newsletters.

The younger children can sign anti-violence banners and produce hand-traced artwork, part of an anti-gun violence campaign called "I Am The Future."

Adults also may participate in a round table with community leaders and county police officers.

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