The Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. gave the national NAACP's endorsement yesterday to an effort to license handgun ownership in Maryland.
Dr. Chavis, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, joined Baltimore State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms and city and state NAACP leaders in promoting a rally Monday in Annapolis in favor of the handgun-control legislation.
"African-Americans in particular have been relatively silent on gun control. It is not an issue the civil rights movement has taken up with great vigor," Dr. Chavis said.
But the national NAACP leader added that unless violence can be curbed in black communities, other civil rights gains would go for nought.
"We can't talk about economic development in our communities when bullets are flying. . . . This is not a philosophical argument, this is about saving lives," he said. "For all the proponents of guns, I would invite them to come to some of the funerals in our community."
Marjorie Green, president-elect of the Maryland chapter of the NAACP, said she supported handgun control partly as a result of personal tragedy. She said her only child, Gregory, was killed a decade ago at age 24 by a bullet shot through a window of his Northwest Baltimore home.
Dr. Chavis said he hoped the proposal, crafted by Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse and backed by a coalition of 150 organizations, would be a model for other states.
The proposal would require handgun owners to obtain renewable licenses after a state police background check and generally limit a person's handgun purchases to two per year. It would also ban the sale of assault weapons in Maryland.
Gov. William Donald Schaefer is expected to propose his own gun control legislation during the General Assembly session that begins today. What the governor's bill will include is unclear, though he is expected to again propose a ban on 18 models of semiautomatic pistols.
The Baltimore NAACP is organizing a caravan to Monday's rally, which is being held on the holiday marking the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. The caravan will form at 3:30 p.m. at Memorial Stadium.
Dr. Chavis has recently supported toys-for-guns exchange programs in New York and Los Angeles. He said the NAACP would like to back such a program in Baltimore.
Another major civil rights leader, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, held a conference last week in Washington on youth violence. Dr. Chavis said in an interview that the emerging focus on violence is healthy, but that to reduce crime, one must also address the lack of job opportunities for youth.
"If we took every gun out of Baltimore and did nothing about the economic situation, some people would go back and get more guns," he said. "Ultimately, economic inequality drives degradation and disillusionment to the point that crime becomes an option for people."