How A Former Gang Member Became A Gun-Reform Activist

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Camiella Williams grew up in a violent neighborhood in Chicago and bought herself a gun for $25 when she was in sixth grade. Tired of all the death and pain around her, Camiella has changed her life and is now working toward peace.

As an activist and gun reform advocate, the 26-year-old speaks about the ways people can reduce gun violence. She told MTV Act about her background, the reality of the underground market for guns and ways that our generation can truly make a difference.

ACT: You grew up around violence and were used to it. What experiences changed your views on gun violence and inspired you to make a difference?

CAMIELLA: My personal stories changed my views. I have been affected by gun violence directly and indirectly. I’ve lost loved ones to gun violence, and I’ve seen violence. My home was shot up before. My neighbors upstairs were shot and killed. The blood was still on my porch. Seeing all this is what made me want to make a difference. I got tired of going to funerals. I got tired of crying and living in sorrow. That’s basically what it was: You go to a funeral every other week.

ACT: Many people are unaware of the underground market for guns. Can you tell us a bit about it?

CAMIELLA: In the community I grew up in — Englewood, on the south side of Chicago — guns are very accessible because they were selling them in hole-in-wall restaurants and hole-in-a-wall apartments and unnamed convenient stores. If you want a gun, you can get a gun. You don’t have to have a FOID [Firearms Owners Identification] card, you don’t have to be 18 or 21. If you say, “Hey, I want a gun,” and you know somebody who can get you a gun, they’ll get it for you.

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ACT: Some people feel that gun reform would infringe on their Second Amendment rights. What are your thoughts on this?

CAMIELLA: Gun reform will not infringe on Second Amendment rights. First you have to think about our rights to live in peace and be happy. The issue that people do not understand is that in order for these guns to become illegal, they were once legal. Meaning that someone — a straw purchaser [someone who buys a gun for someone else who can’t legally buy them or doesn’t want their name tracked] or a gun dealer — went and bought these guns and brought them back to the community and is there selling them. They look at it as, “You shot somebody? I sold you the gun, yeah, so what? You shoot somebody, that’s on you.”

For example, in 2006, Starkesia Reed was shot and killed in Englewood. Her shooter went to a gun dealer and bought an AK-47 [an assault rifle originally made for the military] for $150. He shot up the block and a bullet ending up going through her eye. When I went to court with the family of Starkesia Reed, the gun dealer testified, “Yeah, I sold him the AK-47.” And that was it. He knew [the killer’s] I.D. was fake, there wasn’t a thorough background check. He knew he didn’t look like a hunter, but he sold him the gun anyway. And now we have an innocent 14-year-old girl dead. The gun dealers are not being held accountable.

ACT: You’ve said you believe the solution of gun violence is multifaceted. What are different approaches you think need to be made to end the violence?

CAMIELLA
: Gun violence needs to be made a public health issue. We also need to deal with the fact that when there are no resources in a community, that’s when people become violent. For example, I experienced a violent life myself, growing up in Chicago. Resources were cut in my home, and I felt I didn’t have any other choice and I adapted to the gang lifestyle.

ACT: If someone is living in a place where there is a lot of gun violence, is there someplace safe they can go to? Are there outlets to help them?

CAMIELLA: I personally suggest churches or temples or mosques because they’re supposed to be a safe ground. If not, try going to your counselor. A lot of people feel ashamed to talk about it because if they say, “Look, I live in a place full of violence,” then people might think they’re cowards.

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ACT: You once mentioned the need for kids suffering from depression to be treated. Do you think more advocacy on mental health in our country would decrease gun violence?

CAMIELLA
: Absolutely. Absolutely. Because violence starts in your mind. It starts with a thought. You know exactly what you’re going to do. People around you might not know, but you know exactly what you’re doing to go, how you’re going to do it and where you’re going to do it. I used to just snap out and fight, and it was because something was going on with me.

ACT: How can people get involved in ending gun violence in their local communities? Any advice or resources you can share?

CAMIELLA: I believe people can get involved by calling on Millennials. You can start in your school, you can start talking to your peers. Peers influence peers. Make people who commit violent crimes in your community feel uncomfortable.

There are a lot of organizations. I also want to talk about the importance of voting. Get out there and vote. Get involved in the political process. Share your stories about gun violence or the lack of resources in your community.

Photos: Camiella Williams

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