Over the past few weeks, I've done several ride-alongs with St. Louis area police officers who patrol our streets. My goal is to reach out to our citizens and our law enforcement officers to find the best way to combat gang activity in our neighborhoods. So what have I learned? Gang activity in the St. Louis region is worse than I thought. Unlike Chicago, New York or even Los Angeles, St. Louis-style gangs are mostly based on neighborhoods, and this reality presents unique challenges.
In a place like California, a Crip from Los Angeles is treated no differently than a Crip from San Francisco. Once a Crip, always a Crip, and you are respected by fellow Crips no matter where you go. You are a part of one family. In St. Louis, gangs are linked to particular neighborhoods with names like TAG, 5600 Acme, Dead Ends, 5900 Good (short for Goodfellow), and 10/20. These are the names and tags you see spray painted on the walls of businesses, our city streets and inside abandoned homes and garages.
Guns are easily accessible to gang members; they are handed out like candy at a parade. Everyone has guns and they are even displayed on Facebook, a site where gang signs, money and drugs are openly glamorized. Each area high school has "sets" of gangs that work in collaboration to claim their territory. This presents a problem for rival high school teams, especially at home games, where dozens of rival gangs show up to cheer and heckle. The gang members chant in the stands just like doting parents watching to see if their child makes the free-throw or touchdown. And of course, these young gang members attreact girls who mistakenly think these gang members are cool. It's hard to look at a Facebook page without seeing the loyal girlfriend posted in a picture on a nice summer day at a party in the park for an entire gang family.
Missouri's weak laws regarding convictions for burglaries, car thefts, shootings, robberies, and illegal gun ownership are not helping. These young kids develop long rap sheets as they cycle in and out of jail or prison. Most don't survive their teens years. For example, if a gang member wanted to get a sandwich in another gang's territory, he would probably get shot or killed. Gangs claim specific territories, but then the members are ultimately confined by those borders. And if a gang wants to increase its territory, eventaully there will be a battle between rival gangs, resulting in injury and death. The alternative, to give up the gang and the "protection" of his fellow gang-bangers, is often difficult or even impossible, unless the gang member moves someplace entirely different.
To address this specific occurance, I have filed a bill (SB124) that will prevent the possession, negligent storage, and failure to notify schools of firearm ownership. The legislation intends to encourage parents and legal guardians to become informed on the possession and use of weapons by their children. Those who have a child under the age of 18 would potentially be held responsible for crimes committed if they are aware of the possession of firearms by their hcildren and if they fail to stop the possession or report it to law enforcement, a violation of the law.
We discussed this and other important issues at the forum on school violence - Gangs, Guns & Schools. There were guest speakers, a presentation and public discussion. The event was held February 18, 2013 on UMSL campus.