For 15 years, Larry Pope was a mild-mannered, African-American banker. But these days, the 43-year-old ex-Marine and certified firearms instructor is president of North Coast Defense Academy, where he teaches self defense and trains others coming into the field. Indeed, even his 17-year-old son, Joshua, has received firearms training since elementary school and is already an apprentice instructor.
One would think Pope was raised around guns, but he wasn't. "I'd never touched a weapon, let alone fired one, until I went into the Marine Corps at age 19," says Pope, who was born in Garfield Heights.
Yet he understands the dangers guns pose to communities. "There are over 400 million firearms in the United States," he says. "Unless our laws change radically, and I seriously doubt that they are, guns are not going away."
That's why his solution to curbing gun violence is not an attack on Second Amendment rights. He wants to expose young people to firearms (as he's done with his own son) at an early age to educate them on safety issues and hopefully lessen the grip of the negative side of gun culture.
"We need for citizens to learn to coexist, live peacefully with them, and that takes training," says Pope. "Over the centuries, guns have evolved. ... But the basic principle firearms operate on remains the same. ... It's people who have changed."
Local statistics on gun violence have remained relatively steady over the last few years, with 150 gun deaths in Cuyahoga County last year. While those figures are down from 2011, when 175 people lost their lives to guns, that's still alarmingly high compared to other first-world countries. Nationwide, more than 12,500 Americans died from guns last year, which is increasingly being viewed as a health care epidemic.
Cleveland's police chief Calvin Williams lamented our national obsession after a 3-year-old Cleveland boy picked up an unattended gun in his home and the weapon went off, with the bullet striking and killing his 1-year-old brother.
A next-door neighbor said he was stunned by the news of the tragic death, and by all appearances, it was a nice, quiet household where no drug or gang activity was suspected. In other words, the incident was simply a very stupid mistake made by an adult.
Our fascination with handguns — both locally and nationally — has to stop, Williams proclaimed. The problem is, Williams (whose own brother was shot and killed in February by the woman he lived and fathered three children with) didn't set forth a plan to bring about such a cessation.
On the heels of the death, Cleveland City Council passed a slew of new laws aimed at making it more difficult for criminals to possess or traffic in guns. But the ink wasn't dry on the legislation before Ohioans for Concealed Carry promised to file a lawsuit. Given the manner in which courts at every level, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have ruled, the gun rights group has an excellent chance of prevailing.
Some even posit that with so many existing guns, even if new laws are successfully enacted, the only consequence will be additional people going to prison without a corresponding decrease in gun-related deaths. Clearly, this isn't a problem we're going to be able to "legislate" or "police" our way out of.
Among disadvantaged populations in places such as inner city Cleveland — where the number of incidents of gun violence is most pronounced — it comes down to three P's: power, protection and prestige.
Poverty is disempowering, and the easiest way an impoverished, ill-raised youth can gain immediate power (at least in their underdeveloped minds) is by acquiring a gun — something that's amazingly easy to do throughout America.
Guns also provide protection. Danger can lurk in economically disadvantaged areas, and no one wants to be the only person without a gun, making him akin to a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest. If there's a sense — nevermind the reality — that everyone else is strapped down, it makes sense to every other young person to follow suit.
Indeed, the mother of the dead 1-year-old perhaps mistakenly saw the gun in her home — and the person that brought it there — as protectors, not as a threat to her family.
The last P stands for prestige. When I first heard about the marketing of designer shoulder holsters a few years ago, I knew we were sliding further down that evolutionary greasy pole. Stick a shiny pistol in one of those fashion statements and "presto!" you're now somebody — at least in terms of street culture.
But the love of guns certainly isn't exclusive to inner cities. While black urban dwellers kill more often, whites — as typified by the massacres in Newtown, Connecticut, and Columbine and Aurora, Colorado — kill in far greater numbers. And seemingly for more bizarre, unfathomable reasons.
Paula Fynboh, the national field director for Sandy Hook Promise, which focuses on gun violence perpetrated by the mentally ill, was in Cleveland in April to discuss her organization's new tactic of helping marginalized kids feel less isolated.
"We believe that the best way to prevent gun related tragedy is to stop focusing solely on the guns and instead focus on the reasons why someone might pick up a firearm in the first place to hurt themselves or someone else," she says.
So the organization travels the country to provide training to cities in an effort to reduce the chances of another Sandy Hook tragedy.
In many rural areas, it's size that matters: Firing an American-made Desert Eagle .50-caliber semi-automatic weapon — with one-hand — at an empty 2-liter Mountain Dew bottle from about 20 yards is as close to nirvana as some good ol' boys ever care to get.
But Pope insists that banning guns isn't the answer. "We in the sports shooting community are experts in gun safety," he says. "We feel a sense of obligation to use our knowledge and expertise in urban communities to provide training in the safe use of firearms."
One model they're considering is that of Camp Compass Academy in Allentown, Pennsylvania, which works with urban at-risk kids by getting them into the woods fishing, hunting and learning the proper and safe way to handle firearms.
"The fascination with handguns ... isn't going to diminish," says Pope. "The key is to introduce young people to guns in a safe environment with adult supervision."
While those who view gun deaths as a public health issue might vehemently disagree with Pope in regards to teaching young people how to safely use firearms, one thing is certain: For the foreseeable future, guns are in our society to stay.
Pope uses his own son as an example and argues that our task is to demystify weapons by allowing the handling of them under strict supervision, and in that way, we can learn to peacefully coexist with firearms.
"Education has to be part of the solution," Pope says.
In the end, he just might prove to have a real, workable answer — one that reduces gun violence in America over time.