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Silent March's Protest Is Taken to Gun Makers

Strategy: Empty shoes focus on deaths of American children. The movement took its cue from the successes of anti-smoking activists.

May 03, 1998|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Amy Locicero last wore her teal satin pumps in 1992, as a bridesmaid at her best friend's wedding. The following year, the 27-year-old interior designer became one of Colin Ferguson's victims in the Long Island Railroad massacre.

On Saturday, Locicero's parents dusted off their daughter's size 7 shoes and carried them first to Connecticut, to Sturm, Ruger & Co., which manufactured the 9-millimeter handgun wielded by Ferguson. Then they went to this industrial city that is home to Smith & Wesson Corp., America's largest handgun manufacturer.

The bridesmaid pumps were among 5,285 pairs of shoes displayed in Springfield's courthouse square and later outside Smith & Wesson headquarters. That is the number of children and teenagers killed in the U.S. by gunfire in 1995, the last year for which statistics are available.

Most of the shoes belonged to actual victims of gunfire, such as Locicero, though not all of them were killed in 1995. But some pairs were collected from schools or churches in memory of gunshot casualties.

By protest standards, the demonstration was not large, about 200 people. But its emotional effect outweighed its numbers as, one after another, dozens of family members spoke in remembrance of the sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, they had lost to guns.

To further dramatize their loss, they walked in a circle, clapping the soles of their children's shoes. Tom Vanden Kirk, who runs a social service agency in Chicago, carried a pair of size 10 Dockers that his 15-year-old son, Tommy, adored before he was shot while spinning records at a party in 1992.

The shoes are "all creepy" now, Vanden Kirk said. "I used to wear them, for a long time," in order to feel closer to his son, he said, "but then I said, 'I'd better not, I'll wear them out.' "

Saturday's protests marked a turning point of sorts for the grass-roots organization, Silent March, which had held two events aimed at legislators. Saturday's events targeted gun manufacturers for the first time and focused specifically on young people killed by guns.

Soon after her husband, David, was fatally shot in an attempted robbery in 1992, Tina Johnstone of Brooklyn, N.Y., seized on the idea of using empty shoes to symbolize the toll exacted by gun deaths. In 1994 and 1996, she and her friend Ellen Freudenheim planned Silent Marches in Washington, with 40,000 pairs of shoes lined up on the Capitol lawn.

Drawing on the example of consumer protests aimed at the tobacco industry, the group decided this year to focus directly on gun manufacturers. "What we are saying is that it is indecent that an industry is creating the instrument of death," Freudenheim said.

The Silent March group wants manufacturers to install locking devices to make weapons childproof, put prominent warning labels on guns and establish manufacturer-authorized dealerships.

"It's come to the point now where these manufacturers, they've got to come out and accept responsibility for their product," said Amy's father, Jake Locicero of Hawthorne, N.J.

In a Friday press conference, Smith & Wesson Chief Executive Ed Shulz said, "We feel as badly as anyone else" about gun deaths. "We probably feel more badly when we find out that our gun was used illegally in a tragedy, especially when a child is involved."

He added that the efforts by Silent March "demonstrate a lack of knowledge of the firearms industry, how it is regulated, the legitimate use by millions of law-abiding Americans and the very reasons Americans purchase firearms."

But he said the protest might serve a purpose. "Anything in our country that helps to reduce the number of people that are killed by guns, or anything, is helpful," Shulz said.

Along with the Smith & Wesson event, protests took place Saturday at the Colt's Manufacturing Co. headquarters in Hartford, Conn., as well as Sturm, Ruger in Southport, Conn. Demonstrations were also held at the Maryland headquarters of Beretta USA and at Interarms Inc. in Virginia.

Mary Lee Blek of Orange County Citizens for the Prevention of Gun Violence said a Silent March protest would be held May 16 at the Los Angeles Children's Museum, with a demonstration to follow in Costa Mesa at Bryco Arms, maker of the weapons known as Saturday night specials.

Taking a cue again from tobacco industry critics, protesters also vowed Saturday to take their battle to the courts. Johnstone, for example, is one of 16 plaintiffs in a lawsuit against 35 gun manufacturers and 30 gun distributors, alleging that the way handguns are marketed leads to easy access to guns and unnecessary deaths. The case will be heard in October in New York.

U.S. murder rates, including gunshot deaths, have been falling in recent years. But with about 100 people a day killed by guns in this country, the figure is "way out of line" with any other industrialized nation, said David Hemenway, a professor of health policy at the Harvard School of Public Health.

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