‘Consider yourself responsible:’ Northeastern student implores Senate Judiciary Committee to act on gun violence

young man wearing a suit and glasses in front of a mic
Ernest Willingham, from Chicago, Illinois, speaks during a hearing on “Protecting America’s Children From Gun Violence” with the Senate Judiciary Committee at the U.S. Capitol on June 15, 2022 in Washington, DC. As the Senate negotiates a bipartisan gun legislation framework, the committee heard from medical experts, victims of gun violence and law enforcement officers from major cities. Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Northeastern University student Ernest Willingham has attended more funerals than weddings.

It’s an unfortunate reality, he told federal lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee on June 15, for many growing up in gun-infested neighborhoods across the U.S.—in cities like Chicago, where he lives.

There, historically high levels of gun violence are starting to trend down, but are not yet to pre-pandemic levels. Fifty-one people were shot over Memorial Day weekend this year—the most in five years, according to the Chicago Sun Times.

“Ask any young person in Chicago: How many weddings have you attended?” Willingham asked the lawmakers while testifying. “Very few will have attended one.”

Willingham told News@Northeastern that he’d been asked to speak before the prestigious committee after addressing the Chicago legislature two weeks prior, where he testified on mental health, trauma, and gun violence. Both opportunities were made possible by his childhood pediatrician, who he met through the Chicago Youth Programs, a nonprofit started by a group of medical students and physicians at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.

And Willingham has earned his seat in front of the policymakers. He said his brother, father, a cousin, and best friend all directly experienced gun violence. His brother was shot twice within a year while living at Cabrini-Green—once in the groin, the other in the leg. Willingham, now 21, was then only 5 years old.

“I didn’t have a clear understanding of gun violence,” he said, “but it didn’t take a rocket scientist to recognize the emotional trauma.”

Then, on Aug. 5, 2018, Willingham’s best friend, Jahnae Patterson, was shot and killed while she was hanging out with friends outside of a home in Chicago. He said she was one of 66 people who had been shot and one of 12 people killed that same weekend.

“I never understood the anguish from gun violence until I had to sing and provide comfort to Jahnae’s family at the funeral,” he told federal lawmakers during his testimony.

Willingham said the impact of gun violence has stoked so much fear that it influenced many life decisions, such as where to attend college. He continues to cope with this “interpersonal fear” every day.

“I purposefully did not apply to any schools near my home because I was afraid I was going to die from gun violence,” he said. “I made a vow to myself that I would rather risk losing my life in another part of the country than have my mother learn that someone had taken my life away from me in Chicago.”

With financial support from Northeastern’s Torch Scholars Program, Willingham made the decision to come to the Bay State and study health sciences on the pre-med track at Northeastern’s Boston campus. The scholarship, aimed at giving students from diverse backgrounds the opportunity to pursue their passions, was one selling point for Willingham; the other was simply that desire to feel safe.

The youngest of 11 children, Willingham grew up in the Cabrini-Green housing projects in the west side of Chicago until his family’s building was razed, displacing them. With his co-op slated for the spring of 2023, Willingham said he hopes to be able to spend it working at a juvenile detention program in Chicago.

“I’d like to be able to guide the young people to say, ‘Hey, there’s somebody who looks like you doing great things in our community,’” Willingham said.

The federal committee hearing explored the subject of “Protecting America’s Children From Gun Violence,” and it comes in the wake of a string of mass shootings, including the May 24 massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, that resulted in the deaths of 19 children and two teachers.

Democrats and Republicans are working on a bipartisan gun safety package, which, as proposed, would enhance background checks for potential gun buyers younger than 21, among other things. Willingham urged lawmakers to act.

“Gun violence is a multifaceted issue,” he said. “We can point the finger at the folks holding the gun; we can blame it on single-parent households; and we can even blame it on lower income neighborhoods. But until the legislative branch takes a stand to save our children, we are pointing the finger right back at you.”

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