June 15, 2022

Durbin Questions Witnesses in Judiciary Committee Hearing on the Impact of Gun Violence on Children

Witnesses include 19-year old from Chicago who grew up surrounded by gun violence, including losing his best friends to a fatal gun wound as a teenager

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, today questioned witnesses at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the impact of gun violence on children following the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, that claimed the lives of 19 students and two teachers. This is the ninth hearing that the Judiciary Committee has held in the 117th Congress on aspects of the nation’s gun violence epidemic.

Durbin first questioned Phoenix Police Department Chief and President of the Major Cities Chiefs Association (MCCA) Jeri Williams about the mass shooting in Buffalo that killed ten Black Americans in a racist act of violence, including Aaron Salter, a retired police officer working as a security guard who traded fire with the gunman but was outgunned by the shooter’s AR-15. Specifically, Durbin asked if police officers are outgunned by shooters with assault style weapons.

“When the shooter came in with his AR-15 and started shooting randomly, the customers in the store said he [Salter] pulled out his handgun and was gunned down by this AR-15 as well. He was clearly outgunned at that scene. That is not an uncommon experience that many of the police and those we count on in this country are being outgunned by the shooters,” Durbin said.  “What is the response that would make it safer for the police that you represent?

Chief Williams responded by saying, “we do need responsible gun legislation.  We do believe there should be a ban on assault weapons [and] on high capacity magazines in order for us to properly serve and protect our community.”

Durbin then questioned Dr. Moira Szilagyi, President of the American Academy of Pediatrics, about childhood trauma and gun violence. He specifically cited testimony from Ernest Willingham, a 19-year-old witness from Chicago who grew up surrounded by gun violence, including losing his best friend to a fatal gun wound as a teenager. Decades of research, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study, have established the link between a child’s exposure to trauma, its effect on neurological and behavioral development, and long-term negative health, educational, and societal outcomes.

“Can you tell me a little bit about the trauma situation. He [Willingham] has come forward and made quite a great contribution in his own life towards his college education and his aspirations. What are the hopes of rescuing young people like him, who have been exposed to this trauma as they are growing up?” Durbin asked.

Dr. Szilagyi confirmed that children who have high levels of exposure to adversity, such as witnessing violence have “high rates of lifelong mental health, health, and poor social outcomes.” She also stated that with interventions such as school mental health services and trauma-informed community programs, kids can succeed. 

Durbin concluded his questions by asking Mr. Willingham about his experience with gun violence. Mr. Willingham is the youngest of 11 children in his family and the first in his family to attend college, and has multiple family members who have been shot. 

“Mr. Willingham, I wish I had more time. I would like for you to explain… going through a lifetime exposed to this gun violence and uncertainty, and despair in some situations, how did you end up weathering that storm and moving in the right direction?” Durbin asked.

Mr. Willingham reiterated that a child can excel with a support community. He also stated that, “it takes a village to pour into one child and having a team of people, a good family, teachers, mentors... That is what can attest to my story.”

Mr. Willingham joined today’s hearing to speak to the trauma that gun violence has caused in his family and community, the need for common sense gun reforms to reduce shootings, and the importance of programs that support survivors of trauma—which have helped him rise from a background of trauma and community violence to pursue his dream of becoming a doctor. 

Video of Durbin’s questions in Committee is available here.

Audio of Durbin’s questions in Committee is available here.

Footage of Durbin’s questions in Committee is available here for TV Stations.

Gunfire is now the leading cause of death among American children and teens, and an entire generation of children is being traumatized by horrific mass shootings and the daily toll of gun homicides, suicides, and accidental shootings. According to the CDC, in 2020, the most recent year statistics are available, 4,368 American babies, children and teens died from gunfire.  That’s 12 kids every day—an increase of nearly 30 percent over the previous year.  As Congress debates reforms following the May 24 massacre of 19 fourth-graders and two teachers in Uvalde, this hearing discussed both the devastating impact of gunfire on child victims as well as the trauma that children suffer when they are injured by gun violence, witnesses to gun violence, or exposed to gun violence in their homes and communities.  The hearing discussed solutions that would help prevent shootings of children and support those whose childhood is scarred by gun violence.

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