Several dozen children clutching water pistols and cap guns Monday lined up in Newark to exchange their fake weapons for non-violent toys as word spread that a shooting with a real gun had taken place just blocks away.
Newark Mayor Cory Booker said the nearby gunfire was from a man accidentally shooting and injuring himself, and that the fact it took place near a children's toy gun exchange illustrated just how important such initiatives had become to curbing the cycle of violence.
"We have a serious, serious problem in Newark, in Jersey City, Camden, Detroit, Cleveland; there's a serious problem in America with gun violence," Booker said. "We've got to start to break this culture, and we in Newark are determined to do that."
Newark's toy gun exchange program was organized by a grass-roots group called Stop Shootin' Inc., which holds anti-violence vigils and community events throughout the city. Toy gun exchanges have been held in cities across the country, as a way to educate young people about the dangers of illegal weapons.
Monday's event, held in a small park in Newark's gritty South Ward, offered children who brought in plastic weapons of any kind a choice of new, non-violent toys and books. Among the offerings were new hockey sticks and pucks donated by the New Jersey Devils hockey team, new basketballs, boxing gloves, Barbie dolls or chess sets.
Ten-year-old Shanae Bunn, accompanied by her grandfather, a well-known Newark anti-violence activist called "The Street Doctor," brought in an old cap gun to exchange it for a new toy.
"We all want this shooting to stop in this world, and it's just sad, because everybody's dying this summer," Bunn said, referring to the most violent summer the city has seen in a decade. "Some of my friends, their family members keep on getting shot, and the more they tell me the more I get sad about it."
Although several of the participants, like Bunn, came with parents who belong to the Stop Shootin' initiative and the number of donated items far outnumbered the participants, the event did draw local parents and children curious about the pile of toys and the music with an anti-violence message that gave the event a festive feel.
Chantelle Ulmer, 23, heard about the event from a neighbor and brought her 3-year-old son, Julian, to hand in his water pistol.
"This is not a good area, it's really not a good area, there's been a lot of shootings around," Ulmer said of the neighborhood. "So I think this is teaching the younger kids, you know, don't grow up to use guns, just play with toys; do the right thing."
Event organizer and Stop Shootin' co-founder Al-Tarik Onque said toy guns may seem harmless, but whether a bright colored water pistol or a realistic plastic replica of a weapon, they both served to make children comfortable with real weapons.
"Little kids, they're young adults," Onque said. "They keep growing, and if they keep playing with guns, in a negative way ... Guns in urban communities, there's nothing good about it. We're just trying to change mindsets."
Newark City Councilman Ras Baraka said he'd heard the argument that toy guns aren't necessarily harmful if they're accompanied by responsible parenting, but said the level of violence among young people in some urban areas had moved beyond that debate.
"The same culture that makes our kids want to have guns _ water guns, cap guns, rap music _ we wanted to combat that by saying that guns are not toys, guns kill people, especially in our community," he said.
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