Wednesday, as President Obama was speaking with force and compassion about a need for tougher gun laws in the United States, a handful of young men was being paraded before state Superior Court Judge Raymond A. Reddin to face arraignment on charges of murder, attempted murder or conspiracy in the killing of 19-year-old Alex Siri of Clifton. Their appearance in court, reported by Staff Writer John Petrick, drives home the point.
Yes, this is Passaic County, and we have been this way before. We have seen young people cut down in a hail of gunfire by other young people, with guns obtained from God knows where, for reasons that may really never make much sense to most of us.
Siri, prosecutors say, was a victim of a case of mistaken identity, dying, police say, after being hit with multiple rounds fired from a .380-caliber handgun while standing outside 139 Parker Ave. in Passaic on Jan. 8. Prosecutors paint the perpetrators as members of The DP or Dominicans Don't Play.
Whether or not Siri, described by friends as "a calm kid," was the target comes as no solace to those who cared about him. He appears to be only the latest casualty in a wave of gang violence that's menaced the city of Passaic in recent months like the Masque of the Red Death. Former Mayor Margie Semler spoke candidly to me on the troublesome specter of gangs and their reach in Passaic, even down into the city's middle schools.
"It starts when they're young," Semler said of the gangs' influence. "And it has a way of piling on as the years go by."
Those arraigned Wednesday include George M. Ramos-Compres, 19, of Passaic, who pleaded not guilty to charges he killed Siri, a Clifton High School graduate who authorities say was standing with his girlfriend near the Home Depot entrance on Parker Avenue. Following the arraignment for Ramos-Compres and four others, Passaic County Assistant Prosecutor Michael De Marco spoke of the brutality of the alleged gang-style slaying.
"They went out, a group of them, in three cars and intended to shoot and kill someone, but Mr. Siri was not the intended target," he told The Record.
As troubling as the gang aspect of violence is in Passaic, it cannot be divorced from the prevalence of guns, a culture of guns manifest all over America and intensely felt in our most impoverished cities. Such is the sad state of affairs in New Jersey and elsewhere, as police departments are seeing personnel ranks shredded at the altar of "necessary budget cuts."
At the end of the day, that means fewer officers left to patrol the streets and to deal with the unwieldy, unforgiving reality of too many people with easy access to guns. As you drink your coffee this morning, take a look at the faces of the young men, just boys really, charged in this awful crime.
They are part of a vast cohort of America's youth that too many people in Washington and elsewhere have all but abandoned, in part because of pressure from the NRA. Our elected leaders, first and foremost, have failed to close loopholes in existing law that allow a gun purchased, say, in the Texas Panhandle to be used in a drug-related killing or bodega robbery in Passaic County.
These are the same elected leaders who like to tell us that "guns don't kill people, people kill people." Tell that to the friends of Alex Siri. Tell that to the police who patrol the hard streets of Paterson and Passaic.
There have been, thankfully, a handful of lawmakers, and I count the ageless Sen. Frank Lautenberg among them, who know full well the scourge of these indiscriminate weapons in our urban centers. And then there is Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., who has, time and again, sought to bring federal dollars to help fill gaps left in budgetary shortfalls in cities and towns across North Jersey. Pascrell praised, in particular, the president's call for universal background checks for all gun sales.
"These are common-sense actions that we can be taking right now to strengthen our background check system and enforce our existing gun laws more aggressively," Pascrell said in a statement.
So yes, let's put everything on the table in this discussion about guns, including background checks at gun shows. Let's look at the mental health issues. Let's look, for the sake of argument, at the effect of video games and violence in our movies.
And while we're at it, let's look at the grinding effects of high unemployment, poverty and inadequate schools.
Most of all, though, let's look at guns and how they wind up in the hands of our young people, and why they have become, all too often, the first arbiter in settling scores on city streets.
Bruce Lowry is assistant editorial page editor at the Herald News.