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Growing Up With Guns
More children in Florida are getting their hands on guns. And even if they don't intend to use those weapons for violence, it can have serious consequences for them and their communities. Health News Florida's Stephanie Colombini has been exploring the way guns can endanger kids' lives and futures.

Tampa is using federal funds to tackle gun violence among young people

A young boy in a red hat raises his hand in a classroom. Other teen boys and men are there.
Stephanie Colombini
The nonprofit Safe and Sound Hillsborough runs programs for kids involved in crime and is spearheading the violence intervention effort in partnership with the Tampa Police Department, University of South Florida and other community organizations.

The $1.5 million grant is going toward connecting kids involved in crime with support services and helping community groups raise awareness about gun violence.

The city of Tampa is working to address gun violence, particularly among young people. Police are partnering with local nonprofits and the University of South Florida to take a public health approach to curbing crime, using a $1.5 million federal grant.

The money will help provide services like mental health counseling, job training, mentoring and academic support to youth ages 10-17 involved in gun crimes.

Too often, communities close doors on kids who have been arrested, said Nilda Otero, manager of the community violence intervention and prevention initiative for the Tampa Police Department.

“They get kicked out of school, service providers or even these after-school programs say, ‘Nope, we can't take them because of their charge,’ and those are actually the kids we really need to dive in and provide a service to and show them that there are people out there trying to help them,” she said. 

More kids are getting their hands on guns

The Bureau of Justice Assistance awarded the grant to the city of Tampa in 2022, as part of a broader effort by the Department of Justice to help communities reduce violent crime. While gun violence among adults was declining after a pandemic spike, it was rising among young people.

The number of kids getting caught carrying guns has continued to rise in Florida in recent years.

The city spent last year planning its project, as required by the grant, and is now in the implementation phase. The nonprofit Safe and Sound Hillsborough is partnering with the police department to spearhead the effort.

Man stands addressing media in a park. A group of people stand behind him with signs and t-shirts calling to end gun violence.
Octavio Jones
Freddy Barton, executive director of Safe and Sound Hillsborough, spoke at a vigil for victims killed and injured in the Oct. 29 shooting in Ybor City. He's working to prevent youth gun violence.

Safe and Sound works with teens arrested on gun charges as part of its Youth Gun Offender Program and also runs other initiatives for youth involved in the justice system. Some of those kids may qualify for this project, said executive director Freddy Barton.

Kids who haven’t picked up guns yet but may be at risk of getting involved in violence can also participate. Data analysts will look at individuals’ arrest records and other factors to determine whether they would be a good fit for the program, he said.

Supporting families affected by gun violence

Safe and Sound is hiring two case managers to work directly with young people and their families and help them navigate resources in the community.

“Summer is right here, we’ve already seen an increase in youth gun violence, now it’s hot, kids are out of school, most of them do not necessarily have something to do and keep them engaged over the summer, so it’s important for us to move very quickly, identify those kids who we need to work with and start working with them as soon as possible,” said Barton.

Involving families is a key component of the effort, said Calvin Johnson, TPD’s deputy chief of community outreach and professional standards.

“Because it's one thing to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to get the gun out of the juvenile's hands and get them to change their behavior’ – that's easier said than done, because you're dealing with different aspects of their lives,” he said. “You don't know what's going on inside their household or the friends they hang with."

In addition to supporting at-risk youth, the grant will also help pay for community efforts to educate the public about gun safety and support families of people who have been killed or injured in shootings.

“There's not a lot of attention that goes to making sure victims have voices and so part of the funding will allow that as well,” said Barton. “So there’s a lot of great opportunities to provide true community engagement, work with those who are most at-risk and also support those who’ve been affected by the gun violence that we’re seeing in our community.”

Local nonprofits, including Rise Up for Peace, Men of Vision Inc. and AMIkids Tampa will provide some of the support services. Other groups can apply for funding as well if they meet certain criteria. Project managers will help educate grassroots organizations about how to get their own grants in the future, added Deputy Chief Johnson.

The University of South Florida is a research partner in the grant. Researchers will collect and analyze data to track the project’s progress and evaluate how well it works in reducing violence.

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.