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Families, Advocates Share What Could Stop Gun Violence in Alabama

Gun violence recently became the leading cause of death among youth in the state. (Adobe Stock)

By Alaina Bookman | abookman@al.com

University of Alabama student Makayla Jordan, is now a Member Of Students Demand Action. (Provided)

Makayla Jordan, 20, a University of Alabama student, said she has feared dying since the in-school shooting death of Courtlin Arrington, a Huffman High School student.

“I walk into the university student center every day wondering where the closest exit is in case an active shooter walks in. I’m sitting in the library right now and I’m listening for gunshots. That’s not something I should be focused on,” Jordan said.

Gun violence recently became the leading cause of death among youth in the state. As the anniversary of the Dadeville shooting that killed four people and injured 32 approaches on April 15, Alabama advocates and state representatives reflect on what they say should be done to stop homicides, suicides and accidental shootings.

“It really hit home when I saw that leaders were not taking action against gun violence in Alabama and in Birmingham, where we see this so often,” said Jordan, now a member of Students Demand Action. “So I started my group and started mobilizing my peers against gun violence and making sure that people were aware of the gun violence crisis here in Alabama.”

Huffman High School senior Courtlin Arrington was fatally shot Wednesday, March 7, 2018 at 3:40 p.m. in the doorway of a classroom. Her classmate, Michael Jerome Barber, was charged with manslaughter in Arrington’s death.

State Investment

Dana Ellis, a volunteer with Moms Demand Action, is advocating for a $1 million of state funds to invest in hospital-based violence intervention programs across the state.

“My background is that I’m a nurse. I was employed at UAB for 30 years, so I saw many people admitted after violent incidents. So there’s a unique opportunity when somebody is in the hospital, to engage with them, and to help to reduce the chance of retaliation or a reoccurrence of a violent injury,” Ellis said.

In 2021, the most recent year available, 1,315 people in Alabama were killed by firearms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That statistic includes suicides, homicides and accidental shootings.

In 2023, Alabama made it legal to carry a concealed handgun without a permit. Some law enforcement authorities said permitless carry makes it easier for people to commit homicides.

But many legislators in the state say tightening gun laws won’t change the outcome of dangerous incidents; some prefer to focus on funding toward school safety and law enforcement efforts.

“We can pass laws til we’re blue in the face and until people have respect for the law, that just doesn’t matter,” said Rep. Ed Oliver, who represents Dadeville.

After the 2023 shooting, six people were arrested and charged with reckless murder and dozens of counts of assault, including Sherman Peters III, 16, of Tuskegee; brothers Travis McCullough, 16, and Tyreese McCullough, 17, of Tuskegee; Willie George Brown Jr., 19, of Auburn; Johnny Letron Brown, 20, of Tuskegee; and Wilson LaMar Hill Jr., 20, of Auburn. Trials are likely months or years away; if found guilty, those tried as adults could face life in prison.

Gun Converters

Ellis and other advocates believe proposed bills like HB36, could make a difference. The bill makes the possession of gun converters like a glock switch, which converts a handgun into a machine gun, a state level offense.

Rep. Phillip Ensler is the author of HB36. (File)

“I filed this bill last year, even before the Dadeville shooting. So certainly, if there was a device that was used in that shooting, this could help stop some of these future ones,” said Rep. Phillip Ensler, who wrote HB36.

“The fact that gun violence is the number one cause of death for adolescents. Not cancer, not disease, not hunger, but the fact that it’s gun violence. I’ve heard from people of all walks of life and backgrounds that they want legislators to do something to try to reduce some gun violence.”

Authorities have said that two of the handguns used in the Dadeville shooting were modified to shoot like automatics, and federal officials have been trying to crack down on conversion devices. Last month, after Jerry Lewis Jr. was shot and killed in Birmingham, authorities found a firearm with a switch and arrested Jaiden Davis, 19, in connection to the homicide.

“The biggest reason for this bill is I heard from law enforcement all throughout the state that they, whether it’s Mobile, Montgomery, Birmingham, are increasingly finding handguns that have these devices on them. And they just don’t have the state level offense,” Ensler said.

Ensler said legislators should keep pushing for hospital, school and community-based violence intervention programs to see a reduction in everyday gun violence. Birmingham city officials, for one, have invested in conflict resolution and offender alumni programs. In 2023, Birmingham saw a drop in homicides for the first time in five years.

“No one law is going to stop every loss of life. It’s not going to stop every shooting or mass shooting, but it can stop one,” Ensler said. “Having more of those violence intervention programs reaching our young people is really important.”

A Big Issue

Oliver said the small town of Dadeville is heartbroken over what occurred almost a year ago. But he said he doesn’t think the proposed legislation would have changed the outcome.

“When four kids get killed because you’ve got a bunch of kids that are underage 50 miles away from home at 10 o’clock at night involved in a shooting, you got bigger problems than gun violence. It’s kids that are parentless. Parents need to be parents,” Oliver said. “[Glock switches], yeah that’s an issue but not nearly as big an issue as the first issue, which is what were those kids doing 50 miles away from home.”

Advocates also say lawmakers should consider other avenues to protect Alabamians from everyday, individual gun homicides. It’s a sentiment that hits close to home for the parents of Sophia Nicole Zeigler.

Zeigler, 19, was shot and killed in a Hoover gas station Aug. 3, 2022. Skylar Jacquel Dorsey, 24, has been charged with capital murder in her death.

Zeigler would have been celebrating her 21st birthday on April 14. Her parents, Tessie Zeigler and Larry Fin, have set up a scholarship fund at Wallace State, where Sophia planned to study cinematography.

They are also working on an initiative asking businesses to post signs banning firearms on their property.

“She was absolutely full of energy and had a love for community involvement as far as volunteering at local churches,” her mother said. “She really enjoyed travel. She spoke German as a second language. She was an absolute top notch bowler. She was the captain on the bowling team at Hoover High School. She also served as a Diamond Doll for the Hoover baseball team. She also was a member of the track and field team. Sophia was very smart, most of her classes were AP classes. She was such a bright young lady.”