Guns Are Back

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"I refuse to leave any child behind in America," says President George W. Bush. Here are four: Randy Ruiz, 17, and Brian Zuckor, 14, the two shot dead at Santana High School in California; shooter Andy Williams, 15; and Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.'s Lionel Tate, who got life in prison without parole for murdering a six-year-old girl when he was 12.

Of course, the president and Marian Wright Edelman's Children's Defense Fund (which will gather in D.C. this month and from whom Bush lifted the slogan) aren't the only ones keen to leave no child behind. It's just that every effort to reach that lofty goal encounters political resistance somewhere on the political spectrum from the "aggrieved" - be they gun nuts, greedy health insurers or grasping prosecutors.

Leading the lists of contentious issues is gun control and its place in preventing youth violence. During the Reagan-Bush era, guns were airbrushed out of the picture by the federal government and many of the hundreds of self-censoring national groups dependent on government goodwill and cash in order to thrive.

But after eight years of firm Clinton administration support for more even-handed research on the causes and prevention of lethal violence, plus an unprecedented leap of philanthropic support for pro-gun control groups, there is little chance of returning to the "guns don't kill, people do" amnesia of the 80s.

In 1993 Bill Clinton signed into law the Brady Bill requiring background checks on gun purchases. That law, claimed Clinton in his final radio address to the nation, kept guns out of the hands of "over 600,000 felons, fugitives and stalkers." In the same speech he announced that his White House Council on Youth Violence had established a website ( and a toll free hotline for adults (866-SAFE-YOUTH). But one week and 177 pardons later, Clinton was gone. So too was the White House Council on Youth Violence headed by civil servant Sonia Chessen, who returned to HHS' Office of Planning and Evaluation. The website and hotline, now severed from the White House, survive as part of the National Youth Violence Resource Prevention Center, run by private contractor Analytical Sciences, Inc., based in Silver Spring, Md.  By mid-March, the website had received over 1.3 million hits since Jan. 13, according to ASI's deputy task leader, Alice Reynolds (a former youth worker and foundation program officer). However, there is a major disconnect between hits and runs batted in: The actual number of parents who called seeking information totaled a minuscule 18.

Still, it's a brave new world for advocates of youth violence prevention - that is, for those groups still willing to acknowledge the all-pervasive role of virtually unfettered access to guns in the nation's annual lethal carnage among youth. During the 1999-2000 school year, 13 students age 19 and under died, down from 54 in 1992-93, a gratifying drop for which youth workers and CBOs are given little credit by the press, law enforcement or either political party.

Another Clinton legacy, this one dear to the heart of Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations' Subcommittee on Labor, HHS, Education and Related Agencies, is the establishment of 10 National Academic Centers of Excellence on Youth Violence. Winning annual million dollar grants for an expected five years from the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control were Columbia, Harvard and Johns Hopkins universities, the University of Hawaii and the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Universities garnering about $400,000 per year for five years were the University of  California/Riverside, UC/San Diego, the University of Michigan, Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Puerto Rico.

In May 1999 Clinton responded to the Columbine slaughter by suddenly announcing a new nonprofit National Campaign Against Youth Violence (NCAYV). Tapped in August 1999 by the White House to lead the still phantom effort was Jeff Bleich, a former clerk to Chief Justice William Rehnquist. While Bleich had written on the subject of youth violence, he had no programmatic background whatsoever. In November 1999, soon after his appointment, Bleich was bullishly talking about a $15 million budget with a multifaceted campaign on the nation's airwaves and meanest streets. "It's definitely a campaign. We'll be around for three years." Few thought the NCAYV would survive for three years, never mind pull off an America's Promise-like switch from a time-limited effort to an open-ended one. But Bleich, who stepped down in January as executive director, has done just that.

Working out of his San Francisco law firm office he assembled a mostly D.C.-based staff with Sarah Ingersoll, a former aide-de-camp to then U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice Administrator Shay Bilchik as his deputy director. Quickly learning that in youth advocacy work talk is cheap, while cash is dear, Bleich nevertheless set up a credible 34-member Academic Advisory Committee staffed by retired NYU professor John Devine and a 20-member National Youth Action Council. Bleich also organized a Media Advisory Council co-chaired by Kathy Bushkin, COO of AOL Time Warner Inc., and Peggy Conlon, CEO of the New York-based Ad Council. The 80-member group has helped the NCAYV broadcast millions of dollars in free PSAs, reports Ingersoll. Signed on as the NCAYV's "lead organization for youth engagement" is SHINE (Seeking Harmony In Neighborhoods Everyday), a 1997 outgrowth of a nonprofit chain of multicultural children's museums called Kidsbridge. Directed (and founded) by Alan Rambam, SHINE claims "14 million students who receive the program annually." SHINE's "pro-social" classroom lessons are based on a peer instruction model, which, says SHINE,  has a 58 percent to 93 percent success rate

The National Campaign Against Youth Violence also has a "partnership" with PEACE Games a Trenton, N.J., outfit run by Eric Dawson that "challenges the leader of tomorrow to become the peacemaker of today."

The campaign has had a tougher time gaining traction on the ground. A 15 city-by-city campaign designed "to strengthen local anti-violence programs" began in Memphis in August 2000, with efforts now underway in St. Louis. Other jurisdictions on the list are Baltimore, Spartanburg, S.C., and the state of Colorado.    

Predictably, raising money proved to be NCAYV's greatest challenge. Despite the official launch by the White House, Clinton did little to raise big money for the group, leaving Bleich to "cobble together," as he put it, operating funds. The $15 million budget Bleich wanted in 1999 never materialized, and with the departure of Clinton from the White House, it now becomes a steep goal indeed.

But when Bleich announced he was leaving the CEO slot to become a board member and resume his law practice, he left behind a going business concern plus a long-term niche in anti-violence advocacy for NCAYV. Promoted to the top spot is Ingersoll.

The graceful exit was made possible by a $1 million over two years grant from the Los Altos, Calif.-based Packard Foundation. The NCAYV's total budget is $3 million, which supports Ingersoll, and several other staffers, including Deena Maerowitz, most recently with the San Diego Urban League, where she was director of policy and programs. Contact Sarah Ingersoll, (202) 223-1650.