In East NY, Gun Control not a Campaign Priority


Titus McQueen ran as fast as he could. He took cover from scattering bullets in the tall, red-brick buildings he has come to know very well, Cypress Hills Houses in East New York.  He ran down Blake Avenue between Logan and Milford streets.

It’s a short block with scant patches of greenery seeping through cracked, uneven concrete. Colorful awnings adorn each home, the only hue brightening the grey passage leading up to the uniform project buildings.

Ambulance sirens and a “burning heartbeat” in his foot is most of what McQueen, 34, recalls about the hot summer day 12 years ago when he was shot twice in the foot. “My adrenalin was pumping, I didn’t feel anything until a few minutes after I stopped running,” he said. “Then I thought, damn! They finally got me. I’ve been shot.”

The bullet, along with the ability to wiggle his toes, remains for McQueen a bleak reminder of the gun violence that affects East New York residents.

But even in a community with much more than its share of gun violence, residents express indifference to gun control as an issue in the presidential campaign. What matters to those interviewed are decent, affordable housing, sufficient well-paying jobs, and recreation for the community’s children.

That’s not good news for Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his organization Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which took out advertising before the first presidential debate urging President Barack Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney to address the issue. So far, Bloomberg has not had much success in making gun control a campaign issue in a year dominated by economic concerns. (His spokesperson did not return a call seeking comment.)

“In poor and minority neighborhoods you don’t know where the next meal is coming from, and your one step away from the shelter. It’s killed or be killed,” said Walter Campbell, manager of Community Board 5 in East New York.

Police reported 14 murders and 659 robberies as of Oct. 7  in East New York’s 75th Precinct. Shooting incidents declined slightly to 62 from 67 the previous year.

Offering  a weary smile as he spoke about his past, McQueen said, “I got to eat was the only thing on my mind, so I sold drugs to survive.” Eventually McQueen was spotted by a rival dealer who opened fire on him. McQueen has long left his past behind and currently works operating a forklift in a warehouse.

“I didn’t know much about finding a job and no one was there to teach me, McQueen said. “Growing up in the projects all I knew was how to hustle.”

Many residents of East New York realize that the community is lacking opportunities for young people, a leading factor in the rampant gun violence in the area.

“The government has to provide more opportunities. Kids have no resources and no place to go so they get distracted by other elements that aren’t good,” said Marjorie Cooke, 46, a 15-year resident of the neighborhood.

Jeffrey Matthews, 37, manager of a hardware warehouse in East New York recalls, “I’ve been shot at many times. A good portion of my teenage years I walked around with a firearm.” He added:  “Without many opportunities, or role models, young people turn to the streets.”

In the wake of a gunman’s devastating attack on a movie audience in Aurora, Colo. that left 12 dead, on July 20, Bloomberg wrote a letter to Obama outlining legislation that would impede the sale and use of illegal guns.

Despite his efforts, a Pew Research Center poll reveals gun violence is not a high priority in the campaign or among voters. Like residents of East New York, voters are more concerned with the economy, jobs, healthcare, and education.

The poll found that for 87 percent of adults  prioritized the economy, 83 percent jobs, 74 percent healthcare, and 69 percent education.

Much as elsewhere, gun control is not high on the list in East New York.

“Our first priority is affordable housing, second is education,” said Campbell who is working with the New York City Housing Authority to build housing in East New York that is not solely based on low income. Charter schools are also important to Campbell, who likes that the city broke up two of the largest high schools in the area. “Thomas Jefferson and Franklin K. Lane each were broken down into four different specialized schools,” he said.  “Now teenagers have an opportunity to choose a specialty.”

Having spent more than seven years in prison for gun and drug possession, McQueen regrets his past. “If I grew up in a different environment without the violence, the guns, the drugs, I would have had a fighting chance and been better off today,” he said. McQueen’s status as a felon stops him from voting but he still believes in Obama. “I would vote for Obama; he would give more opportunities to my children and my community, opportunities I never had.”

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