The city of Gainesville concluded its two-day gun violence prevention summit, Choose Peace, on Monday with roundtables and discussions on how to put plans into action across the community.
The summit comes after two years of dealing with youth gun violence and an increase in shooting incidents. The Gainesville City Commission declared a gun violence crisis in February.
Leaders from the city, Alachua County, law enforcement and the education system showed up at the Hilton UF Conference Center, along with community group like Moms Demand Action, the League of Women Voters and Peaceful Paths.
At the start, Mayor Harvey Ward reminded attendees that the summit concerned guns, not sticks and stones or bows and arrows. And yet, he said the city and county must work with one hand behind its back because Florida law blocks local government from placing restrictions on firearms.
“While we know we can’t do anything about guns, strange as that is, we can build structures for our community,” Ward said. “We can use the infrastructure that already exists to step up and say we’re going to do more. We’re going to build around what we can’t do and build safer structures for the people who depend on everybody in this room to live safely.”
During the Monday session, leaders touched on ideas ranging from increased communication with partners to trade programs, community policing and economic development. Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut also said the city may need to take a look at its open container ordinance and receive data on the impacts while also supporting firearm safety legislation at the state level.
Keynote speaker Ariel Cathcart, with Everytown for Gun Safety, spoke on her work with mayors and cities across the nation. She said mayors and policy setters can initiate change, but they need help.
“Without a community presence, effective policy will never succeed, and when people show up, day in and day out, transformative things happen,” Cathcart said.
The Sunday session centered on the community perspective, actions neighbors can take and their point of view. More than 400 people showed up for the meetings that lasted from 2 to 9 p.m.
Gainesville has held meetings on gun violence over the past couple of years, including a town hall in December 2021 and the police department’s unveiling of its One Community response to gun violence earlier that year.
Spurred by deaths in the area, state Rep. Yvonne Hayes Hinson filed a bill that would mandate secure storage of firearms in vehicles during the 2023 legislative session, and community members gathered last week to hold a vigil in memory of Ajike “A.J.” Owens who was killed in Ocala two months ago.
Gainesville Police Department Chief Lonnie Scott said communication will be important moving forward. He said the same people who commit crimes in Gainesville do the same in surrounding areas like Lake City, Williston and Palatka.
“Typically, we run across information, and we keep that information to ourselves,” Scott said. “We need to share that information across the spectrum, regionally, so that we’re all on the same page.”
Ward said one of his goals for the session is to create a network of partners and for those groups to report back to one another and the community about progress, perhaps with another meeting in January.
“We can do better than that,” Ward said referencing a double homicide from last weekend. “And shame on us if we don’t do better.”