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Combating the surge in youth gun violence in Florida

A person with short hair and a beard, wearing a brown corduroy jacket gestures while talking into a microphone in a radio studio
Daylina Miller, WUSF
Freddy Barton, executive director of Safe and Sound Hillsborough

Youth advocates are working hard to defuse the trauma of gun violence in Florida, even as more kids are caught with guns.

A shooting in Ybor City the weekend before Halloween killed two people: 14-year-old Elijah Wilson and 20-year-old Harrison Boonstoppel, and injured 16 others.

So far, two people, a 22-year-old man and a 14-year-old boy, have each been charged with second degree murder. Police say the investigation is ongoing.

The charges against the 14-year-old highlight a grim fact in Florida: more kids are getting their hands on guns.

In a series airing on WUSF this week - Growing Up with Guns - Health News Florida’s Stephanie Colombini examines the consequences: from deaths and injuries to children, to the trauma of losing a loved one to a shooting or being a witness to gun violence.

The series also highlights the work being done to push back against gun violence, help kids arrested on gun charges to turn their lives around, and support victims of gun violence.

On this episode we sit down with Colombini to talk about what her reporting reveals. Joining the conversation is Freddy Barton, executive director of Safe and Sound Hillsborough, who's working to turn the tide of youth gun violence.

Colombini said it was important to "focus on gun violence as a public health issue, not just crime and law and order. You know, for kids or adults who get involved in this, there are so many underlying factors that can contribute to that one moment when they pull the trigger."

A person with long hair and a maroon sweater speaks into a microphone in radio studio
Daylina Miller, WUSF
Health News Florida's Stephanie Colombini

Part of the series focuses on how families who have lost a loved one to gun violence navigate the trauma, through support groups like Rise Up for Peace.

"They said, 'We need to help families because we have lived that experience. We can relate to them, maybe more than somebody else who hasn't gone through that can, even if they have the best intentions to offer emotional support.' The fact that these families have similar experiences, helps them support each other," said Colombini.

Barton's youth gun offender program launched just over a year ago. He said in 2022, there were over 300 shootings in Tampa and parts of Hillsborough County, double what was reported in 2021.

Barton said he's heard of children as young as 11 getting their hands on guns and committing some of these offenses.

"So we've been adamantly and vehemently working in the community, to one get ahead of this problem, working with those kids who have yet to get in trouble. But also knowing that we have to work with these kids who are in our systems to prevent them from getting even further in the system."

"We talk to the kids when they come in, and we ask them...where did you get the gun from? And why did you pick up a gun in the first place?" said Barton.

"They tell us 'no, you need to understand: all these kids have guns. So if I don't have one, I'm gonna be dead. So that's why I have to get it.'"

What's worse, said Barton, most of the guns are coming from unlocked cars.

"What the scariest part about that is, it's not the 16 to 17 to 18 or 20-year-olds that are actually getting the guns. They're sending the younger kids, the 12, the 13, the 14 year-olds out to get these guns because they think that if they get caught with a gun, their penalties are lower, and they can probably get away with it."

I am the host of WUSF’s weekly public affairs show Florida Matters, where I get to indulge my curiosity in people and explore the endlessly fascinating stories that connect this community.
Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.