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Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Eric Swalwell visits Baltimore to highlight campaign's focus on gun violence

With his eye on the White House, California Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell visited the 1600 block of Pennsylvania Ave. on Friday — Baltimore’s, that is, not Washington’s.

The candidate, who announced his bid for president last month, met with community activists and nonprofit leaders at the Shake and Bake Family Fun Center in West Baltimore as part of a national listening tour on combating gun violence.

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Swalwell cited gun violence reduction as his campaign’s primary policy focus and has listed a mandatory national ban and buyback of military-style semiautomatic assault weapons and universal background checks as some of the core tenets of his platform. A graduate of the University of Maryland, College Park and the University of Maryland School of Law, he said the trip to the city he once called home felt especially personal.

“I love this city and want to see it thrive,” he said. “I don’t want to give up on these cities, and I don’t want the cities to give up hope … the time to act is now.”

Since his formal campaign announcement, Swalwell, 38, has visited Chicago, Philadelphia, Indianapolis and Fairfield, Iowa, for similar gun violence roundtable discussions and town hall events. He plans to hold more in Houston and in the San Francisco area in the coming weeks.

In Baltimore, representatives from Maryland’s chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, anti-violence nonprofit Roca and Johns Hopkins Medicine described their personal experiences with guns and the resources they seek from leaders, which ranged from after-school and summer youth programming to additional job opportunities.

Though some members of the group had not heard of Swalwell before Friday’s discussion, they appreciated the opportunity to connect with him over some of the issues afflicting their city.

One such woman, Darlene James, lost her son Keith in a 2010 shooting and brought a framed picture of him to show the group. Swalwell promised to remember her son — who friends and family knew as “Peanut.”

“There needs to be a real push for violence,” James, of Catonsville, said. “It’s too much. Every time you turn on the TV, someone is getting killed.”

During the discussion, James “J.T.” Timpson, Roca’s director of safety and community partnerships, said guns represent only a part of the equation in curbing Baltimore’s homicide rate, which has left more than 300 people dead every year since 2015. Just this year, 117 homicides have been reported.

“We have to take back the culture of our streets,” Timpson said, adding that black men have a special responsibility to mentor and serve as role models for the next generation. “We need to invest in the people of these neighborhoods.”

Echoing Timpson, Darlene Cain — whose son, Dale Graham, was killed in 2008 — said the city needs more mental health intervention to help children recover from the trauma they endure as a byproduct of living in Baltimore. Chaplin Denise Reid, who also lost her son, Tavon, to gun violence, said housing and commercial development in areas such as Harbor East at the expense of poorer neighborhoods has fueled anger and aggression in impoverished communities.

Swalwell said that while he remains focused on limiting access to guns, the listening tours have illustrated the need for public community investment to address the root causes of violence in cities such as Baltimore.

“There’s not one solution that can prevent a church shooting in Texas and a shooting in West Baltimore, but I do believe the ease of access to the weapon is causing the loss in the communities,” he said. “I think there’s just some problems that only government investment can solve.”

The son of a former police chief and the brother of two current sheriff’s deputies, Swalwell said his perspective differs from others in its focus on including law enforcement personnel in its strategy. He said police and communities benefit from partnership programs like those implemented where his brothers work.

“We’re not on the same page — but we should all be,” he said. “It has to be an authentic strategy, not just thoughts and prayers.”

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Swalwell also said that his time working as a prosecutor and serving on the House Judiciary Committee prepared him to act as the “champion” of this issue. As a parent of two young children, he said he worries about their safety at school.

While political analysts and polling experts have referred to Swalwell’s candidacy as a dark horse in the race for president, some attending Friday’s discussion said they would not overlook him at the ballot box. Cindy Camp, of Baltimore’s Govans neighborhood, said voters must research all their options.

“I’m thinking of supporting him,” Camp said. “You want to support people willing to stand up for us — someone who knows your needs.”

If elected, Swalwell would become the youngest president ever to serve. He will participate in next month’s presidential debate for Democratic candidates.

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