WASHINGTON – Matt Fenton IV was on his way to a friend’s Bolton Hill row house on a tree-lined street in Baltimore when two teen-agers asked him for directions.
“The next thing I knew, one pulled out a gun and said, `OK, hand it over,'” Fenton said of the 1981 robbery. “I gave them my wallet, but they shot me anyway.”
The bullet that grazed Fenton’s head disintegrated several parts of his skull and propelled the then-30-year-old into 15 years of volunteer work against gun violence.
He and his wife Nancy, director of Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse, will be among the thousands of protesters expected at Monday’s Silent March behind the Capitol, where 40,000 pairs of shoes will be displayed to represent the 39,595 Americans killed by firearms in 1993.
Organizers said they hope the shoes will personalize crime statistics and catch the attention of lawmakers, who they say have ignored firearm victims through weak regulation of the way guns are made and to whom they are sold.
“The concept was to put together a demonstration to show how many people are killed each year because news reports show it one by one by one,” said Ellen Freudenheim, a Brooklyn, N.Y., resident and one of the march’s national organizers.
“We’re not looking for passage of a piece of specific legislation. The whole category of products needs to be reviewed with an eye toward preventing death and injury. Guns are an inherently lethal product,” she said.
But Michelle Plasari, a spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association, said many regulation proposals attack the weapon and burden law-abiding people without catching the criminals.
“These kinds of laws would not cause crime to decrease,” she said. “Firearms aren’t inherently dangerous. Criminals are.”
The shoes – collected from hospitals, families, abuse shelters, women’s groups and churches across the country – represent all walks of life.
Baby shoes and boots, slippers and sandals, heels and high tops, loafers and moccasins will be arranged by state on the steps surrounding the Capitol reflecting pool. The number of shoes in each state’s display will equal the number of gun- related deaths there in 1993.
Maryland will have 797 pairs. Virginia will display 971. And Washington, D.C., will exhibit 357, representing the highest gun- related deaths per capita in 1993, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
The shoes will be donated to charity after the demonstration.
The national protest got its start three years ago when Freudenheim and Staten Island resident Tina Johnstone – both members of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence – were trying to convince Sen. Alfonse D’Amato, R-N.Y., to support the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act. The bill, which Congress passed in 1993, established a five-day waiting period for the purchase of handguns.
The women secured a demonstration permit and piled hundreds of shoes on the sidewalk in front of the senator’s New York City office.
“We were looking for a way to show that these are real people and real lives affected by gun violence,” Freudenheim said.
Shoes were chosen as the medium of expression because “they tell a lot about a person,” Johnstone added. “Their age. Their gender. Their personality.”
On what Freudenheim called an “absolute song and a prayer,” the women decided to elevate the project to a national scale, involving coordinators in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia.
“After so much trouble to pass the Brady Bill, which was a very mild, simple federal regulation, we decided it was time to do something to voice our protests,” Johnstone said.
The first Silent March was held in 1994.
“It was extraordinary,” said Julia M. Dunkins, a 48-year-old D.C. resident whose first husband and only child were shot to death in unrelated incidents. “It was so moving and so strong … just to look at all those shoes and know it was from gun violence.”
A pair of beat-up loafers – her son’s favorite pair of shoes – will again join the pile of footwear representing gun-related deaths in Washington. Her 24-year-old son, Jonathan Baxter, was killed in a night club in 1993 over a pair of boots, she said.
Requests to Congress will distinguish this march from the 1994 protest, organizers said.
Organizers are calling for measures such as improved safety requirements that would only let the registered user of a gun fire it; tighter controls on sales to middlemen and tougher licensing and registration of gun purchasers. They also are suggesting fines for manufacturers who illegally sold guns to people convicted of using the weapon during a crime. And they are backing a bill that would hold parents liable for the crimes of children who access their guns.
“Gun violence is a big problem,” said Freudenheim, a free- lance writer who writes about public health issues. “It is a big public health problem and it needs to be addressed as a public health problem. If 40,000 people died of an Ebola outbreak, there would be a huge public outcry for prevention.” She added: “It’s not a class issue. It’s not a race issue. It’s about the availability of a lethal product.” -30-