SHERIFF: “We are losing a generation of young people”

Cultural sea change necessary to thwart gun violence

By Sheriff Leon Lott

Let me begin with the bottom line: We are losing a generation of 14-to-28-year-olds to gun violence. In 2021, gun violence was the number one killer of youth in America. This is not some distant statistic, unrelated to our lives here in Richland County. Last year, our county statistics paralleled exactly this national data.

The recent tragedy in Uvalde, Texas brings one more painful reminder of what a gun in the wrong hands can do to obliterate lives and destroy families. We are living in a time in which we need to come together and recognize that we must act, not simply regret, that gun violence is ripping apart our country. We are beyond the time when lamenting gun violence is all we do; we must act as a society that brings its communities together to prevent senseless gun violence, particularly on the part of our youth.

As sheriff of Richland County, I have seen the deaths among youth from gun violence grow annually. I have seen mothers and fathers of young victims grieving with raw, deep agony; I have also seen the tragedy in the lives of the families of the youths who use guns so recklessly and perpetrate gun crimes. Their children are lost, in a different way, to a lifetime of incarceration. Last year, we had 32 deaths in Richland County from gun violence. We solved them all, but this fact does not change the frustration and sadness that come with the loss of young life, particularly when so many of these deaths can be prevented.

We need to understand the general environment in which so many of our teens and young people live. They are bombarded with what I call “the gun phenomena.” From an early age, so much of what they see on television, in movies, in video games, and hear in their music glorifies guns. They live in a society in which gun violence is omnipresent. And in an age in which instant gratification has become somewhat the norm, our youth think less about the consequences of their actions. They must realize that life is not like a video game or a movie: You can’t push a button and rewind and start over without living with the repercussions of your actions. Our youth correlate the holding of a gun in their hands with possessing unjustified power. At a time when so many of our youth feel insignificant and aimless, many of them tell our officers how holding the cold heavy steel of a gun gives them a sense of importance and worth, a way to demand what they erroneously see as respect.

This is why we must all come together as a community, as a county, as local neighborhoods to begin to make plans and take actions to give our troubled youth more structure, more opportunities to feel a sense of worth, and more ways to learn life’s real lessons. We need to help these youth understand that they can earn respect legitimately for who they are and how they act. They need to realize that they don’t need a gun in their hands to feel important or gain respect.

These ideas may all seem like platitudes or well-worn ideas, but sometimes the most basic wisdom is the best. We need more of the “village” concept in helping youth in our communities. Some say that the phrase “It takes a village to raise a child” comes from an ancient African proverb; others believe the phrase originated within Native American culture. The origination of the proverb doesn’t matter; what does matter is that both African and Native American cultures depended greatly on the entire village’s commitment to help care for all of its children.

And this is exactly what we need today in our 21st-century world. Yes, we need responsible gun owners, and yes, we need better mental health services, but we also need to change people’s heads and hearts. As one local politician recently said in Uvalde, “we need thoughts, prayers, and policies.” The same can be said for Richland County.

Our children are growing up in a world that is so entirely different from that of just one generation earlier. They are learning from life on the streets, from imitations of real-life seen on a television or video screen, or from a group of their peers as misguided as they are. A theologian wrote in The New York Times in the wake of the Uvalde tragedy that there is a saying in Latin used in monastic practice: “Ora et labora”—prayer and work. She writes that “It tells us that contemplation and action work together to inform one another.” We must find a way to think and act to reduce gun violence in our society.

This is why we must become that village, a community that stands up and meets the needs of our youth who are adrift, those who don’t possess the values and innate compassion to moor them safely to real life. We must let them know that someone loves them; we must provide them with the lessons, the need to accept responsibility, and the human values they need to become responsible members of their communities. Every day when we simply talk but don’t act, people are dying.

We need a program of studies in place from pre-school through high school that teaches our children life skills to recognize their own worth and the worth of others, one that is embedded throughout the entire curriculum. We need more churches to get “outside of their four walls” and create ministries that would attract youth—recreation rooms, sports programs, and other outreach opportunities to appeal to the interests and enjoyment of youth.

We need more civic clubs and professional organizations in “our village” to generate new programs for youth, whether for mentoring or recreation. We need the institutions of higher education in our county to become more proactive in creating activities for our youth who need direction, maybe as projects for their own students or for their athletic teams. We need our legislators to approve funds for more afterschool programs, counseling, and structured activities for these marginal youth. And most critically, we need the leadership of our city and county to create a task force to organize, inspire, and mobilize these efforts—not months from now, but right now. Today.

The Richland County Sheriff’s Department will be at the forefront of the creation of this “new village” for our youth. I promise that we will contribute our own ideas, our own resources, and our own hearts to help Columbia and Richland County organize, implement, and deliver this much-needed coordination of programs for our youth. Their lives and the wellness of our community depend upon it.

– Leon Lott is the sheriff of Richland County, S.C.