BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — By looking at the staggering number of homicides in Birmingham this year, it’s easy to get caught up in the statistics.
But the parents of these young victims don’t want you to think of them as statistics. They want you to know they are people who had their lives cut short.
The parents I spoke with are all speaking out with one hope: that they can prevent someone else from dealing with the pain they’ll feel for the rest of their lives. The hardest thing many of them had to learn was that this kind of tragedy could happen to anyone.
Toshima Shay Rembert never thought in a million years she would lose her two-year-old son.
On August 5th, two-year-old Ron’Narius “Duke” Austin was killed in a barrage of 67 gunshots, according to the family. He became the youngest person shot to death in Birmingham this year.
Rembert says she is emotionally numb from her loss, and it was especially tough for her on Halloween.
“I got on Facebook this morning and the picture popped up of him from Halloween last year,” Rembert said. “He was a pirate and it made me mad.”
Betty Wiggins knows Rembert’s pain all too well.
“It hurts me to know that another parent has lost their child,” Wiggins said. “Another family has got to go through all of this misery and pain.”
Betty Wiggins and her husband Dwight lost their 19-year-old son Omarfio Houston Wiggins in June of 1993.
“I didn’t want to believe it. I just thought they had – it was the wrong person or something,” Wiggins said. “But it was him. To this day, I see that face of how he looked. It’s hard, it’s very hard.”
Omarfio was a student at Auburn University where he was studying as a pre-med student. He was home from school one weekend, and he and a friend went to pick up food from a restaurant.
”The reason why he was shot was because he wouldn’t move his car fast enough. They shot Omar first with a nine millimeter,” Wiggins explained. “They shot him 9 times and then the other young man tried to get out of the car to try to run and they shot him.”
Wiggins says she is speaking out now because of the rise of senseless violence against kids and because of the upcoming parole hearing for Omarfio’s killer.
“I am going to be honest, in the beginning, I wanted him dead. I wanted them to electrocute him. I was so mad and hurt,” Wiggins said. “That’s the way that I was thinking. That was in the beginning. Now, as long as he’s in prison, let him die in there.”
Keeping her son’s killer in prison is a mission Wiggins started shortly after I met her and her husband in 1994. Together, we all traveled to the nation’s Capitol where parents placed the shoes of their dead children on the reflecting pool to bring awareness to gun violence.
The parents from Birmingham met with then Alabama Congressman Earl Hilliard. Wiggins wanted Hilliard to do something to help stop the violence.
Like Wiggins, the family of Ron’Narius Austin is looking to leaders to stop the tragic loss of innocent youth.
Austin’s grandmother, Cheryl Irby, says many of the perpetrators of violence are young and irresponsible.
“Young boys get a hold to guns. I mean, I just think it’s ridiculous because they use them for the wrong reason,” Irby said. “It’s like they don’t care who it is, they don’t care.”
Juvenile Court Chief Justice Raymond Chambliss says it’s a matter of guns being in the wrong hands.
”If you are an adult and over the age of 19, 20, 21, and you take a gun course and you learn how to shoot that gun, that’s perfectly fine,” Chambliss said. “But what we have now is a bunch of young people running around getting guns.”
Chambliss says young people have easy access to guns.
“We can walk right up the street in Smithfield and purchase a gun for 30, 40, 50 dollars right now. It’s those types of guns that is causing our youth to kill each other.”
Having easy access to guns is just one of the factors contributing to the rise in juvenile murders, according to the parents of victims. Other factors they say contribute include a culture of drugs, no conflict-resolution skills, and a lack of religion.
This is a community problem that will require a community solution – families, communities and law enforcement working together.