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Resolution draws ire of gun rights supporters in emotionally-charged meeting

Gun rights supporters had accused Mayor Mike Duman of betrayal, while the daughter of a former City Councilman whose son died in a shooting just wanted him to be remembered.

That was the backdrop for an emotionally-charged public comment period during the June 2 Suffolk City Council meeting as dozens addressed a Gun Violence Awareness Day proclamation that had not been on the agenda but had been talked about on social media. The Gun Violence Awareness Day would be June 4.

Ultimately, Duman read the proclamation, but not before more than 90 minutes of public comment about it from more than a dozen people, as well as council members speaking about it later in the meeting.

“A lot of people come up here talking about being a victim,” said Britta Brown-Whitehead, daughter of former councilman Charles Brown.  “But I am a gun violence victim. And today, what the day is about … honoring the victims, honoring the survivors of those who have been impacted by gun violence.”

She wore an orange shirt with the image of her son, Luis “Lou” Zambrana Jr. and the words, #IWearOrangeforLove.

Brown-Whitehead, who requested the proclamation, said her son was standing at an Exxon getting Gatorade when someone he didn’t know came up to him and shot him twice in the head. That’s why, she said, everyone needs to honor and respect the victims of gun violence.

“Sept. 16, 2019, at 11:16 a.m., my life was forever changed. I got a call no mother wanted to get,” Brown-Whitehead said. “My son had been shot and killed. Nine days before, he had just walked me down the aisle. The last day I saw him was that day, Sept. 7. The last time I got to hug, kiss, just hold him. That was the last day.”

A trial is still pending in Newport News for the man accused of shooting Zambrana.

She expressed the desire to work with anyone to put an end to violence through guns or otherwise. To that end, she spoke with Virginia Citizens Defense League president Philip Van Cleave.

“What can we do to end the violence?” she asked him after the meeting. He gave her a card with his contact information.

Their conversation, joined by Duman and others, extended well after the meeting had ended.

She said she and her husband, retired Marine Travis Whitehead, are gun owners themselves, and he noted he wasn’t speaking out to take away anyone’s guns. It’s not the tool, the gun, that kills anyone, Whitehead said. Rather, he said, it’s an unstable person with something going on in their mind having a bad day.

“We use that tool as a way to solve problems,” Whitehead said. “That’s not the answer. What we want to do is to let people know that (there’s) a problem going on. It’s not just in certain communities. It’s not just affecting a certain group of individuals. It’s moving everywhere.”

He said he is a two-time victim of gun violence, not only with the 2019 death of Zambrana, but also losing a brother who was shot to death in 2006. He also wants gun violence victims, he said, to be remembered.

“Now I’m not going to stand up here and quote any statistics,” Whitehead said, “because I see the statistics when I go to the grave. When I visit it and clean it off each week, I see the statistics.”

Joan Turner, representing the Suffolk Advocacy Group, said her son went missing in 2015 after reportedly being shot twice in the head.

She said the 3-month-old group is there to be a sounding board for people’s grief and support for people who have their loved one’s case in court. But it is not a political group. She asked that people be positively engaged in all of the city’s endeavors.

Van Cleave, who spoke with Duman before the meeting, said he strongly objected to the title of the proclamation — Gun Violence Prevention Day — because Moms Demand Action, and the wording of it, focuses on a tool and not on the concept of violence itself. Taking out the word “gun” from the proclamation, would solve the issue, he said.

Opponents of the proclamation said they objected to Moms Demand Action’s involvement in the resolution because they support taking away guns from law-abiding owners. The organization characterizes itself as “a grassroots movement of Americans fighting for public safety measures that can protect people from gun violence.”

“The proclamation that I saw, basically was aimed at violence,” Van Cleave said. “And our organization is fine with that. We agree we don’t want to see violence in the world, whatever, however it’s committed, be it with an automobile, be it with a knife, be it with a gun, be it with beating somebody to death, none of that. We would like to live in a world, just like everybody else would, where we don’t have to worry about these things. Unfortunately, right now, that’s not the world we live in.”

Janet McKinney, speaking after Van Cleave, accused Duman of “selling out every last ounce of integrity you have for 30 pieces of silver,” and said Moms Demand Action “peddles in fear, not facts.”

“I am ready, willing and able to have a conversation based on fact, not fear,” McKinney said, “facts that are verifiable and searchable, unlike what Moms Demand Action will peddle to you.”

C.E. Tactical owner Gary Crossfield said he is all about preventing violence, but added that any proclamation should be about preventing crime violence, not gun violence.

“Gun violence is a term, unfortunately, that has been twisted and manipulized by politicians and of this country,” Crossfield said. “Because we’ve already talked about (how) a gun is a medium to do something. If we say it’s the gun’s fault, then it is (not) our children’s fault, it is the pencil’s fault when they fail the test.

“It’s not the gun, and I can say this, because I got that phone call at 1 o’clock in the morning when my son had been shot. It was non-violent. Luckily, he lived. But gun violence is a terminology that’s used by the anti-gun movement to make gun control laws.”

Duman’s perceived betrayal in considering a proclamation to declare June 4 Gun Violence Awareness Day was due to what gun rights supporters said was him working closely with Moms Demand Action.

He denied that, saying he didn’t care about the organization and hadn’t heard of them ahead of this, and sought to clear up what he said were lies and misperceptions about the proclamation posted to social media and political websites.

Initially, he said it was “non-truths” that had been posted before referring to a couple of statements as outright lies, including one that accused him of “colluding and collaborating with a Marxist organization that supports this proclamation” — the statement referring to Moms Demand Action.

Duman said he never had any contact with anyone from Moms Demand Action — “it never happened.” The request for the proclamation came through the city clerk’s office and then forwarded to him to review, said Duman, who noted he was uncomfortable with some of the language, “but not the crux of the matter.”

Also, he denied leaving the proclamation off the council’s agenda intentionally to conceal the issue.

“That’s not misinformation,” Duman said. “That’s a lie.”

He said he had not decided what to do about the proclamation until about 1 to 2 p.m. on the day of the council meeting after speaking with several people in attendance.

“Putting misinformation out there for the wrong reasons to promote a particular agenda makes you no better than anybody else that you want to talk about,” Duman said.

The mayor said he had two great conversations with Van Cleave in the hours prior to the meeting and said he used the VCDL president’s input in putting together the proclamation.

Duman said he has been personally affected by gun violence in the city, as did Councilmen Tim Johnson and LeOtis Williams, who said his mother was shot and killed while she was in bed. Roger Fawcett said he had to dodge bullets just two-and-a-half weeks ago while at a COVID-19 vaccination clinic in Portsmouth — “You don’t know what it’s like until you feel the shell shots going by you and you’re trying to eat the ground to get away from it,” he said.

Duman said in looking at the purpose of the proclamation, it’s important to understand that there is a reason to address gun violence as we should address all causes of violence.”

The proclamation did not need a vote.  Instead, he read it and will be providing it to Brown-Whitehead by June 4.

“It’s imperative that we recognize violence in all its forms,” Duman said, “and that we are committed to protecting the rights of our citizens while remembering the lives lost from senseless violence. And we can do both.”

Proclamation

WHEREAS, violence prevention is a core function of a civil society and everyone’s desire is to live in a safe, healthy, hopeful, and free community; and

WHEREAS, as a result of the tragic shooting of Hadiya Pendleton in January 2013 at age 15, a group of Hadiya’s friends asked their classmates to commemorate her life by wearing orange to symbolize the value of human life; and

WHEREAS, support for the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens and the interests of public safety are mutually beneficial goals that protect the freedom and security of all Suffolk residents; and

WHEREAS, the city of Suffolk and its leadership is committed to protecting the rights of its citizens while remembering the lives lost from senseless violence; and

NOW THEREFORE, I, Michael D. Duman, Mayor of the City of Suffolk, do hereby proclaim June 4, 2021, as

“NATIONAL GUN VIOLENCE AWARENESS DAY “ in Suffolk, Virginia and encourage all residents to observe the day by wearing orange and work toward solutions to reduce violence in ALL of its forms.