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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.

Some Tampa Bay families who lost their kids to gun violence channel their pain into action

Man sits on a bench at a cemetery. He is in front of his late son's tombstone and wearing a t-shirt with his son's face on it.
Octavio Jones
Johnny Johnson honors his late son Jayquon's memory by helping other families who have lost children to gun violence and organizing prevention efforts.

These parents are still struggling with grief years after their kids died in shootings. They say families affected by community violence need more support.

Johnny Johnson is wearing a T-shirt with a smiling teenage boy’s face on it. That same face is etched on a tombstone a few feet away, framed by a pair of basketball hoops.

Johnson’s son, Jayquon, died on New Year’s Day nearly seven years ago. He was 17. Jayquon was a high school sophomore and rising basketball star. Another teen shot him in a Tampa-area suburb during an argument over drugs.

“My life was never the same since that phone call,” said Johnson, speaking from the cemetery where his son is buried. “Even though plenty of my peers’ kids was murdered and gunned down and stuff, so it wasn't new to me, but there's a difference when it knocks on your door.”

Youth gun deaths have risen in recent years

That phone call thrust Johnson into a community that no one wants to be part of: families who have lost a child to gun violence. And the community is growing.

As of Dec. 12, 5,924 youth ages 17 and younger have been killed or injured by guns in the U.S. this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive. That’s a roughly 50 percent increase from 2017, when Johnson’s son died.

Teenagers account for the vast majority of deaths and injuries. Black youth are most at-risk.

In Florida, 72 kids have died in shootings this year while dozens more have been hurt.

Johnson, also known as “J”, has devoted himself to honoring these victims as vice president of the nonprofit Rise Up For Peace.

His friend Patricia Brown founded the group after her own son, Devante, was killed by a stray bullet in March 2020 while walking through his East Tampa neighborhood. He was 27, but to Brown, he was her baby.

“It was like my world had ended,” Brown said, after she adjusted the blue flowers that adorned his grave. It’s in the same cemetery where Jayquon Johnson is buried.

Woman in a black dress stands inside a cemetery and looks down upon her son's grave. Blue flowers surround his tombstone.
Octavio Jones
Patricia Brown founded Rise Up for Peace after her son Devante was murdered in 2020.

In the months after her son died, Tampa Police asked Brown to help raise awareness about gun violence.

“I asked them, ‘What can I do?’ I said, ‘My heart is so full and so heavy that I don't want to see another parent go through the heartache that I'm going through of losing their child through senseless gun violence,' ” said Brown.

“We've been sentenced to life without our loved ones, just like them, so that makes us always available, 365 days a year, 24 hours a day,”
Johnny Johnson, Rise Up for Peace

Supporting families in their grief

Brown ended up joining police officials for a press conference to denounce a spike in shootings.

“Ever since that day, her [she] and J Johnson have been in this fight to reduce gun violence 110 percent,” said Calvin Johnson, the department’s deputy chief of community outreach and professional standards.

Police will frequently connect Brown and Johnson with families who have lost loved ones to crime.

These deaths can be especially traumatic. Families might have to hear graphic details of assault. Investigations and legal proceedings can drag out for years.

Man stands in front of a small crowd under a park pavilion at night. He's wearing a t-shirt with a picture of his late son's face on it.
Octavio Jones
Johnny Johnson and Patricia Brown speak to families affected by gun violence about their loss and let them know they're not alone.

Brown and Johnson direct parents to resources and offer the emotional support they wish they had when their kids died.

“We've been sentenced to life without our loved ones, just like them, so that makes us always available, 365 days a year, 24 hours a day,” Johnson said. “I just talked to a family the other night. I was lying in my bed, 12 a.m., and I got a phone call. A mother was having a breakdown.”

Rise Up for Peace regularly organizes marches, forums and other community events to recognize victims of gun violence and advocate for prevention.

They recently hosted a candlelight vigil in a Tampa park where they invited other parents to open up about their loss.

“My little girl will never come back home. I will never get a chance to talk to her, touch her, see her grow into the woman she was sent here to be. All that was robbed from us.”
Ashley Alexander

Inspiring others to speak up

Ashley Alexander timidly stepped in front of the group. Her daughter Nilexia was murdered in May 2022. She was just 14.

Authorities say Nilexia’s killer shot her multiple times before abandoning her body in a vacant Tampa lot. He faces capital murder charges, but Alexander still has many unanswered questions about what happened.

Two women stare off into the distance at a pavilion in park during the nighttime.
Octavio Jones
Rise Up for Peace hosts vigils and marches to honor gun violence victims and advocate for prevention. At a recent one in Tampa, mom Ashley Alexander opened up about her daughter's murder.

The group listened intently as Alexander talked about her daughter's mental health issues. She tried to get her help, but said Nilexia was struggling and ran away from home several times, until she never came back.

“I question myself [about] what I did as a mom,” she told the group, her voice breaking. “I'm not a big talker so I apologize. I get emotional, too, thinking about it because it still brings tears to my eyes.”

Patricia Brown put her arm around Alexander.

“My little girl will never come back home,” she continued. “I will never get a chance to talk to her, touch her, see her grow into the woman she was sent here to be. All that was robbed from us.”

Alexander said she wants to continue sharing her daughter’s story and talk to young people about preventing violence.

More people need to do that in order to see some results, said Johnson.

Woman stands in front of two houses. She's holding a sign that has pictures of her late daughter on it.
Octavio Jones
Ashley Alexander got involved with Rise Up for Peace after her daughter was murdered in 2022. She wants to create a safer environment for young people in the community.
“You see that instant trauma that this tragedy causes, and that uphill battle that families and friends and communities have to deal with. And you stand there and ask yourself, 'Why is no one this outraged?'”
Johnny Johnson, Rise Up for Peace

The trauma of community violence

It’s been hard for Rise Up for Peace to make progress as a grassroots organization, he said.

Its members sometimes get frustrated when they see the public devote a lot of attention to some shootings — like the recent one in Tampa’s Ybor City that killed two young people and injured 16 — but others are largely ignored.

Rise Up for Peace marched with other demonstrators after the Ybor shooting and welcomed those victims’ families into their community. Johnson and Brown say they just wish other gun deaths got the same response.

As they spoke, Brown started to cry. She was thinking about her son.

“It’s heartbreaking, it hurts, it hurts,” she wept. She couldn’t speak for several minutes.

This, Johnson said, is the toll of community violence.

“You see that instant trauma that this tragedy causes, and that uphill battle that families and friends and communities have to deal with. And you stand there and ask yourself, 'Why is no one this outraged?' ” he said.

Woman in a black dress sits on a bench in a cemetery in front of her son's tombstone.
Octavio Jones
Patricia Brown said "it's heartbreaking" to see more young people die from gun violence and little action taken to prevent it.

Stopping the cycle

Some small changes are happening.

The Tampa Police Department hired its first-ever victim advocate last year. This employee is trained to work with victims of violent crimes and their families, and can connect residents with assistance programs run by the Hillsborough state attorney’s office and other agencies.

“We try and help out folks by putting them with the right people at any certain point in time regarding what they’re going through, and we stay with them,” said deputy chief Calvin Johnson.

In January, Rise Up For Peace will partner with the Life Center of the Suncoast, a local grief counseling center, to offer free mental health services to families on their terms. That could involve support groups in non-clinical settings like churches, or individual counseling in families’ homes so they don’t have to travel.

“We want to be sensitive towards the family and be there when they need us, not, ‘Okay, here’s counseling, take it or leave it,’ right?” said Johnson. “Because everyone moves, or gathers themselves at different times. Because mourning isn't something you can measure, there's no measuring scale for mourning.”

Man stands in front of a group of teenage boys inside a community center.
Octavio Jones
Johnny Johnson recently spoke to a group of teenage boys about the dangers of gun violence.

Rise Up For Peace has another mission: stopping the cycle of gun violence.

The group regularly engages youth through community outreach and education.

One evening this summer, Johnson shared his son's story with a group of teenage boys who'd recently been arrested on gun charges and were participating in a diversion program run by the nonprofit Safe and Sound Hillsborough.

Johnson told the group he wasn't proud of his son's actions the night he died. But he'd do anything to have him back.

He warned the teens messing around with guns could cost them their lives —- and leave their families in his position.

“So think about it the next time you put yourself in a situation where you're going to hurt more than yourself,” he pleaded with them.

One boy asked Johnson if he could reach out to him for help. Johnson smiled, and shared his contact with the group as they applauded his presentation.

Moments like that, he said, are what motivate him to keep fighting for change.

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.