Legislators: Assault weapons must be banned—mother recalls 2010 incident that killed her son

by Christian Morrow, Courier Staff Writer

In 2010, Debra Short’s son, James, was riding through Homewood with his girlfriend and her two children when he was shot multiple times by 18-year-old Jamel Palmer. Palmer used an AK-47-style semi-automatic rifle in the attack—which was actually directed at someone else. James died at the hospital, and as Debra told members of the state House Democratic Policy Committee in Homewood, Oct. 10, she still relives that loss almost a decade later.

“We live with this daily—not just my family, but all of us in this world and us in our districts live with the violence that’s been going on,” she said.

Jason Hare was working at the Western Psychiatric Institute on March 8, 2012, when John Shick walked in with two semi-automatic handguns and opened fire, killing a therapist and wounding four others before being killed by University of Pittsburgh police. Hare told the Committee he was trying to give CPR and treat victims after the initial volley when the shooter returned.

“I almost became the sixth victim,” he said. “I am grateful he didn’t have an assault rifle, and I am forever grateful to the Pitt police.”

State Rep. Ed Gainey, D-Lincoln-Lemington, who chaired the hearing entitled “Ending Assault Weapons Violence,” was joined by state Reps. Summer Lee, Austin Davis, Sara Innamorato and Dan Frankel at the Carnegie Library of Homewood to hear about the ongoing trauma faced by victims, their friends, families and communities in hopes of rallying new support for House Bill 307, which Rep. Gainey first introduced three years ago, and which would ban the sale, manufacture or possession of 37 specific semi-automatic rifles, like the AK-47 and AR-15, the kind used in the Tree of Life massacre in Squirrel Hill almost one year ago.

Dana Kellerman, a member of the Dor Hadash congregation, one of the three using the Tree of Life building, spoke of the loss of friends and the lasting psychological and economic aftermath of the shooting that claimed 11 lives. One of the weapons shooter Robert Bowers used was an AR-15.

“I can no longer reassure my son that the lockdown drills at his school—which he has been subjected to since he was in first grade, after the Sandy Hook (Newton, Conn.) shooting—are just for practice and the chance that he will be affected by a mass shooting is infinitesimal,” she said. “I understand a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines will not prevent every future gun death. In fact, a minority of gun deaths are due to assault weapons. But such a ban will save some lives.”

Representatives from Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto’s office gave testimony supporting Rep. Gainey’s efforts, as did Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who said assault rifles are designed to inflict the most amount of damage in the least amount of time.

“I am urging for the passage of universal background checks, so-called ‘Red Flag’ laws, and an assault weapons ban, immediately,” he said.

The Committee also heard form UPMC Trauma Director Dr. Raquel Forsythe, who said they are seeing an increase in gunshot wounds that are more indicative of “newer weapons” being used. County Medical Examiner Karl Williams spoke about the fatal wound damage he sees regularly at the morgue, and the kind he saw at Tree of Life.

Before he testified, Rep. Gainey, whose sister, Ja-nese Jackson Talton, was fatally shot in January 2016, thanked Williams for coming.

“I know that when I saw my sister being put in that blue bag, it changed my life,” Rep. Gainey said. “So I can only imagine how seeing all this every day makes you feel. Thank you.”

He told the Committee the AR-15 is particularly lethal. The .223 round it fires is only fractionally larger than a .22 but it flies much faster, and the faster, the deadlier.

“It has three times the muzzle velocity and 10 times the energy at impact of a standard rifle (a .22),” he said. “And the bullet tends to ‘tumble’ and fragment on impact, so the damage is much greater.”

Speaking to the New Pittsburgh Courier afterwards, Williams said “tumble” is the wrong word to use.

Instead, “they yaw (pivot horizontally) so you don’t get a straight wound track. You get a small entry wound, but after that the cavitation can be huge. It’s a much larger, longer cartridge, with more powder (than a .22).”

Williams, though he did not have the exact numbers available, also said the vast majority of shootings in Allegheny xCounty’s sizable Black neighborhoods are committed by people with handguns. That, said Rep. Summer Lee, is a conversation that also needs to be had.


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