No More Empty Chairs
By Bill Jenkins
Published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch
Again this Christmas, our family dinner table will have an empty chair,
not because William is off at college, or lives in another city. William was
murdered three years ago, before he got a chance to go to college, become an
adult, choose a career or have a family of his own.
My 16-year-old son was murdered when the restaurant he worked at on West
Broad Street in suburban Richmond, just down the street from his home, was
robbed at gunpoint. It was William's first job, his second day of work.
While cooperating fully with the robber, William was shot in the neck and
My son's life was cut short by a 23-year-old man with an illegally
obtained handgun, looking to make some extra cash. Driving the getaway car
were two girls, one 17 years old and the other 18. Neither of the girls
anticipated anyone would get hurt. Scared and shocked by the entire
incident, one of the girls cooperated fully with the police and was given a
light sentence, her greatest crime being caught up with the wrong crowd. The
other girl is serving an 18-year sentence. The man responsible for killing
my son will be in prison for life, with no hope of parole. But no amount of
punishment can bring back a murdered child.
Since William's death, I've devoted myself to doing everything I can to
save other families from the agony ours has endured. I've learned that the
most powerful weapon in the fight against crime is investment in the early
childhood and after-school programs that give kids the right start in life so
they never turn to violence.
One study after another shows that investments in kids dramatically
reduce crime. For example, a program in Michigan randomly assigned half a
group of low-income three and four year-olds to be in the High/Scope
Educational research Foundation's school readiness program until they started
kindergarten. By age 27, those who had been left out of the program as
toddlers were five times more likely to be chronic offenders.
Yet quality early childhood programs like Head Start are available only
to a tiny percentage of the infants who need them. Regular Head Start begins
at age three, but six out of ten eligible kids are denied access to the
program because of insufficient federal funding.
Investments in older children and teens also dramatically reduce crime.
The peak hours for violent juvenile crime are between the end of school and 6
PM. Quality after-school programs are not only proven to cut crime, but also
help kids learn values like respect for others and responsibility.
Half of a group of high-school freshmen boys from poverty households in
four cities were randomly selected to participate in the Quantum
Opportunities after-school program. Those left out of the program were six
times more likely to be convicted of a crime during their high school years.
After-school programs put kids in touch with caring adults and provide them
with values and skills that will last a lifetime. Mentoring, athletic, and
fine and performing arts programs provide activities which build confidence,
allow creative expression, and foster cooperative behavior. When the energy
of youth is channeled into constructive outlets with respected supervision,
aimless behavior declines and lives are transformed.
Besides saving lives, investments in kids save millions of tax dollars.
The study of the High/Scope preschool program found it had prevented nearly
$150,000 in crime costs for each child who participated. Vanderbilt
University economist Mark Cohen estimates that every kid steered away from
crime saves $1.5 million in taxpayer dollars.
I've joined with more than 1,000 police chiefs, prosecutors, sheriffs,
and victims of violence to form an organization called Fight Crime: Invest In
Kids. Our Youth Violence Prevention Plan calls on public officials to
provide educational child care for all babies and toddlers, quality
after-school programs for older children and teens, parenting coaching to
prevent child abuse and neglect, and intervention to get troubled kids on
The plan has been endorsed by the major Cities (Police) Chiefs
organization, the Police Executive Research Forum, The National Sheriffs
Association, The Fraternal Order of Police, the National Organization for
Victim Assistance and many state law enforcement associations.
Recent polls commissioned by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids show that both
the general public and police chiefs know America can greatly reduce crime if
after-school and child care programs like Head Start are expanded.
Unfortunately, not all elected officials have reached the same conclusion.
If the death of my son is not to be in vain, America must invest in the
programs proven to reduce crime and violence. We can reduce violence and
make every family safer if all elected officials, from president to city
council member, pledge to make educational child care and after-school
programs available to every child.
William's younger siblings, Paul, now 16 and Mary, 14, will be with me
during the holidays. But in our family, the once colorful holiday months,
beginning with Halloween and lasting through the New Year's, now are just the
dark days of winter. William was a kind and gentle person. He enjoyed
drawing, writing poetry and playing the electric guitar. William and I often
played music together. William's memory will live in many hearts and minds
for a very long time. Not a day goes by that I don't think of him.
Is it asking too much to envision an America where lives such as his are
not ended prematurely, where families do not spend their holidays in a cloud
of sorrow, left with only the memory of their murdered child?
Bill Jenkins, of Richmond, Virginia is an advisory committee member of Fight
Crime: Invest in Kids and the author of What To Do When the Police
Guide to the First Days of Traumatic Loss
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A lot of people find it surprising that I do not blame what happened to
William on the gun itself. In fact, I defend certain pro-gun interests regularly with many
I come in contact with. I do try to be fair. Having grown up rurally, with guns in the
house (hunting exclusively), learning gun safety and shooting skills in Boy Scouts, and
having uncles and cousins who enjoy hunting, I have always respected legitimate use of
guns. I have friends who have a demonstrated need for self-protection and I would never
deny them that, and I am keenly concerned about the safety of my police officer friends. I
have a brother who breaks 48-49 out of 50 clays and I am in awe of his skill.
Since my son's murder, however, I have met a lot of people I never should have had
opportunity to get to know. As a result of our common ground, I have tried to learn as
much about the industry and the way it works as possible. You see, like a lot of people, I
used to implicitly trust the gun industry. I felt betrayed when my son was killed.
When I read about Robert Hass' deposition in Hamilton vs. Accu-Tek, when he admitted
under oath that the gun industry has for years manufactured and marketed its products
without regard to public safety, I began looking at the issue of supply, not of use. As I
looked at the numbers available, and the industry plays its cards close on this one, I
realized that the industry is supplying product, both new and used, into an oversaturated
legal market. Industries manufacturing a durable product such as this will bump into this
wall inevitably if something isn't done. As I see it, to stay in business, they had three
1. Make new, sexier gotta-get-me-one-of-those models to sell to current owners.
2. Increase the legitimate market by reaching untapped consumer groups.
3. Close their eyes, keep making product like mad, and if the illegitimate market
works its way into the sales picture, deny any culpability.
I see that they have done all three. It's the third that I have a problem with.
Then I saw how many in the gun industry's grassroots support organizations have developed
a nearly cult-like fanaticism which is fanned to greatest emotional effect by fear and,
dare I say, alarmist propaganda. This is easy to see once you visit the pro-gun websites.
I have sat in on legislative subcommittees and have seen the way the NRA lobbyist works
the committees, patronizing and self-assured that his interests will be protected despite
the testimony of a dozen medical examiners, doctors, teachers, clergy, public health
professionals, parents, and victims on hand. I have read as many of the laws as I can get
my hands on and carefully examine the ones newly presented each year. I talk with victims
and work to serve their needs. I go to their trials and see guns taken from the weapons
lockers that no one I know would even dream of purchasing, much less firing.
I've talked to the police officers who were issued vests after shall issue concealed
permits were instituted in our state and we talked about their fears for personal safety.
The irony is, of course that they recognize their limitations, and yes, perhaps personal
gun ownership will work to protect some people from some
criminal activity, but when will the tactics of the criminals change from accosting and
threatening, to ambushing and killing or maiming? I've talked to the general public,
and their fears are very palpable, because they also have children that work
And I have taken a hard look at the perception of guns in society and would like to see
the reputation of something that people legitimately love and care about restored through
an industry which knows how to exercise discipline, restraint, and corporate
My vision is not clouded, if anything, it is clearer than it could ever be. Pain will do
that to one. I am involved in gun control issues for many reasons, but I think it to be
the only rational alternative to the virtually unfettered proliferation proposed by
industry supporters. If the industry proves to be profiteering from our losses, they will
be beneath contempt, but that is not to say I want them out of business. I simply want
them to contribute to the welfare of those in society who not only legitimately use guns
but also are grievously affected by them. I want them to scale back manufacturing and
sales to levels consistent with what can realistically be sold to the legitimate market. I
want them to address design and safety concerns of the general public, not just their
customers. In truth, they didn't even have a code of ethics until S&W put one
together, not that it did them any good when they were excoriated by their former
I follow the issue with great interest. And I am content to wait and see. I do not think
the gun industry will win this war. People are quick to blame the Clinton administration,
but where will we be with the next? Will we see a policy change that will result in
the end of the specious and hollow refrain, "The gun laws we have aren't being
enforced!"? Considering the foxes who are now guarding the henhouse, I think
What is amazing is the amount of dialog right now. I applaud the rise in
awareness and will work to promote it. Gun control interests are not afraid to make this
an issue now and there are few distractions worth noting. If there ever was a time for a
coalition and dialog, this is it. Otherwise, the industry has too many skeletons in its
closet to stand too much sunshine.
One thing is sure. If the industry is not willing to use its
expertise to bring something productive and positive to the table to address the epidemic
they have materially contributed to, they can't complain when someone else stands up and
takes the lead.
In closing, I see three sides to this issue, much like many issues. Two sides on either
side of a fence yelling and screaming at each other, and an insidious third side who built
the fence and has a vested interest in keeping it standing, for that is how they stay in
business. I'm out to dig up the fence. If we do, I think we will see that the two sides
are not as far apart as they seem to be.
Guns should not be used offensively against another human being. Maybe if
we can agree on this, we can find some other things we can agree on, as well.
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I would like to thank everyone for their care and support as we reach the end of
the old year and begin a new one. Wishes for a peaceful, safe, and happy New Year for
As many of you know, this past year the tragedy of losing William has been somewhat
redeemed and we have experienced many victories. My book, "What to do When the
Police Leave" is now available in bookstores and it looks as if we will be going into
a second printing soon. We have received some incredible reviews and endorsements, leading
me to believe that we have, in fact, done something productive and worthwhile. Our
website, www.willsworld.com is back up and running after several weeks of being in
cyber-limbo. It has been revised and is now bigger than ever. We will continue to add to
it in order to make it an even more useful site for those who have lost loved ones and who
are dealing with tragedy in their lives.
As we reflect on our past two years, we realize that we have met some extraordinary people
and made many new friends through this experience, many who by rights we never should have
had to encounter in our lives, but we are so very glad that you are here with us. We have
been made stronger in ways that we could not have imagined, and as with all exercise and
growth, there is pain which must be lived with and endured. We have seen firsthand and
learned that courage and strength only live in broken hearts, not in those who appear to
be tough and proud. And we have learned that as we walk through our life's journey,
holding out our hands to help others along helps us walk a bit straighter and taller, and
makes our footsteps a bit surer.
Our thoughts and prayers are with you and yours as we begin the new year. I hope your
resolutions include perhaps the most simple goal of all -- To be a bit more loving, a bit
more forgiving, a bit more merciful, and a bit more compassionate to all you encounter,
this year and in the years to come. The changes that practicing these simple acts will
bring about in us will make us far better creatures. The changes they will bring in our
world will be astounding.
Peace my friends,
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I am a college professor and an unwilling expert on the effects of firearms on our
society. Two and a half years ago, I benignly believed the gun lobby's lines, and why not?
I grew up in a house with hunting guns, and learned how to shoot. My rural family members
hunt regularly and my brother is a competition shooter in his spare time. I naively
thought that was the extent of the interaction with guns in my life.
Then, my sixteen year-old son was murdered while working at his new job at a fast food
restaurant by a man using a handgun during a robbery. I began researching the instrument
of his destruction and tore back the cardboard facades and specious claims of the gun
industry. I looked closely at the economics and marketing practices of an industry which
has enjoyed enormous protection throughout its history. My conclusions shocked and
With 250 million guns in society today, over one million handguns alone are placed in
circulation every year for a legitimate market of merely 60-65 million private gun owners.
Over 20,000 gun laws (a number too many have perhaps
taken at face value too often from the NRA's propaganda machine) have been cobbled together by various localities in a desperate
effort to protect themselves, yet these are often trumped by state laws where lobbying
efforts are more focused and well-financed. Indeed, no concerted legislative action has
ever been allowed to adversely affect the industry's bottom line directly. Instead,
attention is diverted to post-sale issues of possession and use. I see a silent and
insidious third party to the issue, the one who built the fence between the vocal factions
and whose primary goal is to keep the argument raging for their own economic benefit. I
see an industry which has allowed itself to be seduced by the easy money of a burgeoning
illegitimate market. It resists voluntarily marketing products ethically and responsibly,
incorporating sensible safety measures, establishing specific training requirements for
buyers, and even guaranteeing that the purchaser of these products will be the end user.
A brief history is in order. In the 1970's and 80's, facing a rapidly saturating market
and foreign competition, the gun industry seems to have re-invented itself. It doesn't
require much effort to observe the following unethical, yet profitable practices: It began
marketing military and police-style weapons to private citizens. Firearms which are not
for defense, nor sport, but are for attack and urban warfare. It began following the
market trends of the illegitimate market, incorporating features which appeal to the
criminal user. It began capitalizing on a growing attitude of uneasiness and paranoia in
society, supplying a false and dangerous hope for protection from people using their
products, effectively profiting from both sides at once. And it began manufacturing
product far beyond any reasonable ability to sell it to the limited legitimate market.
Make no mistake, this small group of people has benefited greatly and has blatantly used
their profits to perpetuate their commercial and legal protection.
Who has suffered? The sports-men and women have suffered as the reputation of something
they have dearly loved and enjoyed has been ruined by irresponsible marketing, sales, and
use. The police have suffered, having been shot at and ambushed by those with more
firepower than the officer has ever carried. Families have suffered as children find a gun
and kill unwittingly, or guns bought ostensibly for protection are turned on another
family member or self. Society has suffered as ready access to a limitless supply of
disposable guns enables and emboldens criminals. Our state legislatures have suffered as
rural interests are pitted against urban by manipulating lobbyists. The gun industry has
truly soiled its own nest. Sadly, it is our nest also.
Despite claims to the contrary, our children are not being sacrificed on the altar of
personal freedom and protection. Our children are not being sacrificed on the altar of
constitutional rights. Our children are not begin sacrificed on the altar of patriotic,
democratic, and lifestyle values. Our children are not being sacrificed on the altar of
any ideology whatsoever. No, our children are being sacrificed on an altar dedicated to
nothing more than base profit and commerce. And that I will not excuse.
In 1997, my son was one of over 20 homicide victims in our county in Virginia. One of 115
Virginia children and teens who died from firearm use and misuse. One of 902 Virginians of
all ages who met their end at the barrel of a gun. And one of the 32,436 Americans who
died with a bullet in them that year.
From 1990 to today, over 9700 people in Virginia and over 343,000 people nationwide have
been killed with firearms. And for every firearm related mortality, the Centers for
Disease Control estimates another three people have received non-fatal injuries.
Want to have some more fun with numbers? Let's say that each of those fatalities in the
past ten years has between five and six close family members or intimate friends in their
lives, and that is a low estimate. That is nearly 2 million grieving parents, siblings,
grandparents, children, spouses and best friends, and I am one of them, and perhaps some
of you are, too.
There are two ways to hunt. One, is the hunter takes time to learn of the quarry, it's
habits and life. The hunter enters the forest alone and tracks the quarry for hours or
even days hoping for a clear shot. This is how the gun industry has been fought in the
past. Dedicated lawyers and lobbyists who have learned its every move have been fighting
one on one. Sometimes they have gotten clear shots and scored minor victories.
But there is another way to hunt, and while less elegant it is far more effective. The
entire village enters the forest. Not highly trained, just willing participants. They beat
the brush, driving the quarry to open ground and surrounding it, and the hunt is over.
On Mother's Day, the village enters the forest.
The Million Mom March will succeed through honest education of the facts, unflagging
determination, and a sincere desire to bring about change. I believe and lay my hopes on
this. And if the Million Mom March is not successful this year, next year perhaps the two
million mom march will be, and the next year, perhaps the three million mom march will be.
For this is an effort which will not easily be turned aside.
We have the right to demand action. We have a right to demand safety. And above all, we
have a right to demand peace. I am in awe of the success of your determined efforts to
make these demands known. I appreciate it more than you could ever know. Thank you.
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