Not for Gun Control
Teenager’s Killing Inspires Many
KNOXVILLE, Tenn.—Zenobia Dobson removed the envelope from her mailbox and placed it, unopened, in her apartment in the Lonsdale Homes public housing complex, her living room already crowded with artifacts of mourning, respect and unrecoverable loss.
There were the football jerseys, framed but not yet hung on the walls, in honor of her dead son. Proclamations from the city and county. A large painting of his face in the clouds. His weight bench, still by the front door.
There was also a collage, produced for his funeral, that included a reproduction of the Twitter message from President Obama that made her son Zaevion posthumously famous. It declared him “a hero at 15,” and asked, “What’s our excuse for not acting?” on gun control legislation.
Mrs. Dobson ran some errands and then came home and opened the envelope. It was full of poems from University of Tennessee students she had never met, and their professor, the poet Marilyn Kallet, who wrote:
I want to kill the bullet that
Killed your son, Zenobia.
Want to stop this madness.
Mrs. Dobson read the poems, and then she cried as if it were still Dec. 17. That evening last year, Zaevion, the youngest of her three sons and a promising high school football player, was shot in the chest a couple of blocks from home in what the police say was a retaliatory gang attack. Zaevion, the police said, was an innocent bystander with no gang affiliation. He died shielding two young women from the attackers.
On Jan. 5, a few days after the president’s Twitter post, Mr. Obama mentioned Zaevion again in a tearful speech in which he proposed more vigorous gun-control legislation. The killing of this innocent teenager, he said, should allay any doubt “as to why you should feel that fierce urgency of now.”
But that was not the feeling in Knoxville, the third-largest city in a state where there has been little political appetite for a new gun-control crusade.
The Republican-controlled Legislature here is one of the most gun-friendly in the nation. In February, it passed a resolution naming a semiautomatic weapon, the Barrett Model M82/M107, as the official state rifle. On Monday, Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, allowed a bill to become law that will allow faculty and staff members at public colleges and universities to be armed.
The mayor of Knoxville, Madeline Rogero, a Democrat in a city with a strong Republican presence, has decided that Zaevion’s story would best serve as an argument for strengthening programs for at-risk youth, and addressing the root causes of gang violence.
In an interview, Mrs. Rogero, with what seemed like a mix of pride and exasperation, noted that she had been named as a defendant in two lawsuits challenging a city policy that banned firearms at the annual Tennessee Valley Fair. The National Rifle Association opposes the policy.
“When you make it just about guns, then you don’t really get more to the root cause of why somebody takes up a gun,” she said.
The police chief, Davis Rausch, who joined the mayor for an interview at City Hall, agreed that it would be tricky to make the teenager’s death a gun issue. “Because then you polarize people,” he said.
And so, with guns off the table, the response to the killing in this city of 184,000 has played out instead with a focus on themes that do not polarize in the American heartland; a respect for chivalry, sacrifice, football and mothers who resolve to raise good sons.
The state Legislature has voted to name a freeway overpass for Zaevion, and at the Lonsdale Homes, a playground will be built and dedicated in his name. Fulton High School, where Zaevion, as a sophomore, played linebacker and fullback for a football program that has won numerous state championships, has created a scholarship named for him. A countywide Zaevion Dobson Day will be commemorated each Jan. 24, in honor of the number--24--that he wore on the field.
Among the items in Mrs. Dobson’s living room is a “citation of excellence” presented by the Knoxville Police Department, extolling Zaevion’s “heroic act of valor and bravery in giving his life by placing himself in grave danger to protect others.”
Mrs. Dobson, 46, is a single mother who grew up in the same project where she raised her boys, encouraging their interest in sports and staying in close contact with their teachers. With the death of Zaevion, she has become something of a public figure. Strangers recognize her from the news. “They just stop me at the mall and want to give me a hug,” she said.
The response, for many here, was an example of Knoxville at its best, transcending the dividing lines of partisanship, race and class. State Representative Eddie Smith, a Republican who represents Zaevion’s neighborhood, was instrumental in having the overpass named in his honor. “His first thought was to jump on top of those girls and protect them,” he said. “What high school student would have thought to react that way?”
But Mr. Smith is among those who are adamant that gun control should not be part of the conversation. “Criminals will always find a way,” he said. “I’m a Christian, so I go back to Cain and Abel. It didn’t involve a gun. It involved a rock.”
After burying her son, Mrs. Dobson returned to her job at a meals-on-wheels program for seniors. Her politics are no secret: A digitally altered image hanging in her kitchen shows Mr. Obama, Malcolm X and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. together, striking similarly pensive poses.
She is grateful for the posthumous recognition Zaevion has earned, but frustrated that gun control is not part of the discussion. On April 16, Zaevion’s 12-year-old cousin, Jajuan Hubert Latham, was killed in an unrelated gang shootout that is under investigation. “All I can do is just pray that one day they’ll have a change of heart,” she said of Tennessee lawmakers.
Mrs. Dobson has been following her son’s case closely. Chief Rausch said that five people of interest had been picked up and questioned. None have been charged for the killing, though four are being held on other charges. The police have not released information about the weapons used, except to note that there was more than one of them.
Last week, the mayor invited Mrs. Dobson to the unveiling of the proposed city budget, which includes funding for a new recreation and jobs center for young people, and increased funding for an antiviolence program called Save Our Sons. Mrs. Dobson could not attend. She had to work.
But she did go, during her lunch break, to hear Mrs. Kallet and her students at their poetry reading on Friday afternoon. They were poems of condolence, mostly, with hints of bewilderment and rage. “’Senseless shooting spree,’” Mrs. Kallet’s poem read, echoing the language of news reports,
As if there could be
A meaningful shooting
After reading, most of the poets approached Mrs. Dobson and hugged her. She hugged them all back. And when they were done, she dried her ears, and made her way back to work.
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