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Mothers don’t ask for guns, but they do want bullets

Helen Ubiñas
The Philadelphia Inquirer

The beaded bracelets are deceiving. They’re colorful, cheerful, even. But a closer look and you realize that the centerpiece is a bullet.

And then, who wouldn’t have a million questions?

That’s the point, Susan Kennedy told me when she called from Florida the other night.

In the fight against gun violence, the more ammunition the better:

Police.

Programs.

And — Kennedy concluded in 2016 after two children were gunned down in Miami — bullets, and the conversation her provocative Bullets 4 Life jewelry fosters.

When a 6-year-old boy and an 8-year-old girl were killed, talk in her city once again turned to gun reform and getting guns off the streets. The mother of three sons wanted that, too. But it wasn’t happening.

Kennedy had an idea. What if we stopped asking people for their guns and instead started asking for their bullets?

One life potentially saved: She hit the streets of neighborhoods most affected by gun violence. People weren’t always sure what to make of the petite woman unabashedly asking them for a bullet. “Just one,” she’d say, assuring them she was neither undercover nor unstable. One bullet for one life potentially saved, she negotiated.

As the number of bullets she collected increased, she started to “pop” them using a special tool to remove the projectile and gun powder. Inside the casings, she inserted strips of paper with custom messages.

She sells some but gives away more — mostly to mothers who have lost children to gun violence like Loria Perez from South Bend, Indiana. Perez’s two sons were shot on the same day in 2017. Her 17-year-old survived, but her 19-year-old didn’t.

Perez was touched by the bracelet — “I never take it off.” And then Perez was inspired to do the same. Young men she approached would often deny having a gun, let alone one that was loaded. But then she’d get a call, or a knock on her door. “I got something for you,” they’d tell her, handing her a bullet.

Remembering Nacear: In May, Perez was at a retreat for mothers who lost children to gun violence when she met Johndell Gredic, of Philadelphia.

Not a day had passed since Gredic lost her 20-year-old son, Nacear, in 2015 that she hadn’t thought of the bullet that killed him. And since getting her first bullet bracelet at the retreat, Gredic said not a day has passed where she didn’t think of starting a Bullets 4 Life chapter in Philly.

Kennedy estimates she’s collected upward of 8,000 bullets just in Florida alone. With other mothers in a handful of cities across the country, including Philadelphia, collecting bullets and making their own bracelets, the numbers just keep rising.

She knows what you’re thinking. She’s heard it — cool idea, but there aren’t enough lifetimes in the world to get all the bullets off the streets.

There’s no time to be cynical in the fight against gun violence, Kennedy said. An estimated 116,255 people are shot in the U.S. every year. The number of shooting victims in Philadelphia last year — upwards of 1,500 — was higher than in any year since 2010.

Kennedy is convinced that the bracelets can spark a change of heart and mind. She’s collected bullets from people who had contemplated suicide, she says; others who plotted to avenge the murders of their loved ones. Last year, she was contacted by the widow of Chris Hixon, the athletic director at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who died trying to save students. Debra Hixon donated hundreds of bullets belonging to the Navy vet. In those bracelets, Kennedy honored Hixon with words that seemed to sum up his life: “If not me, then who?”

One for Nancy: The message has reached Washington.

A few months ago, Kennedy got a call from the office of her local congresswoman, Frederica Wilson. “Nancy” was coming to town and Wilson wanted to give her something special. Kennedy was distracted and didn’t realize — until her phone started going off — that “Nancy” was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was on TV, holding out her orange beaded bracelet, vowing to keep pressing for gun legislation.

Kennedy and her growing number of ambassadors have vowed to keep pressing to keep the topic of gun control in the national consciousness, too. One bullet at a time.