A burst of gunfire turned Luther Brown into an activist on May 18, 2006.
Two men shot up a house on Wilson Avenue in Louisville’s West End neighborhood, killing Earon Harper, 41, and nearly killing her 2-year-old daughter, Erica Hughes. Bullets shattered the toddler’s teeth and left her blind in one eye.
Brown, a retired construction worker who is active in his church, lived down the street, so the rampage literally struck home for him. He researched gun laws. He collected data from Louisville Metro police about the hundreds of shootings around his city and from area hospitals about the millions of dollars in medical costs from gun-related violence. He concluded that Louisville is “awash in guns.”
“We’re living in a community where there’s a shooting every day,” Brown, now 57, said recently. “These kids know all about guns. They see guns on the streets. Their parents are dragging them to a different funeral every week.”
Hoping to save the West End’s next generation from prison or early death, Brown created nonprofit educational programs to mentor children, particularly black males.
Brown’s leading effort, Little Hands Little Feet, warns kids to stay away from guns. It urges adult gun owners to use gun locks — a steel cable that threads through the gun’s chamber, preventing it from firing — if there are children in their homes. With grants from the city and other sources, he has given away more than 500 gun locks at block parties and other community events. He presses a gun lock on nearly everyone he meets.
“There are 60,000 people in West Louisville, and we want a gun lock in every house,” he said.
“Not every dope dealer is gonna want to use a gun lock. But the mamas of the dope dealers sometimes insist on it. They know there are children in the house; they know how children are curious. It’s the mamas who come back to me sometimes and ask for a lock. If we can get locks on even a few of the guns out there, then you know what? At least that’s something.”
People frequently ask Brown whether locks defeat the purpose of owning a gun. What burglar waits patiently for two minutes while the homeowner unlocks and then loads his pistol? In response, he refers them to statistics showing that guns in homes are more likely to be used against someone living in the home, accidentally or deliberately, than defending the home from criminals.
“Let me tell you: It is far more likely that your little one is going to come across your gun than it is that someone is going to break into your house in the middle of the night. You need to be realistic in deciding what to worry about,” Brown told WAVE-TV anchor Dawn Gee in a live on-air appearance in June to promote gun locks.
Statewide numbers show that guns are consistently the leading method of death when children are killed in homicides — well above other methods, such as maltreatment and neglect, stabbing, beating or strangulation.
From 2010 to 2014, counting homicides and suicides together, at least 86 Kentucky children — the equivalent of more than 3 1/2 kindergarten classes — died by gun, according to the Kentucky Department for Public Health.
Last August, Brown was invited to what he considered sacred ground.
Tremain Brown Jr., 12, no relation to him, was accidentally shot and killed by his 11-year-old brother, who was playing with a loaded handgun left accessible in their home. The boys’ grandmother asked Brown to attend Tremain’s funeral at New Zion Baptist Church so he could distribute his gun locks and gun-safety pamphlets to the crowd.
“I didn’t want this to happen to other families,” said the grandmother, Monica LaPradd. “It doesn’t have to happen to other families. This is avoidable.”
Mourners in the church silently lined up for him, Brown said.
“I’d never seen anything like that before in my life,” he said. “You’re in God’s house, and you’re giving away gun locks and gun safety information, and right there’s a 12-year-old boy lying in a coffin? I’ll take that day with me to my grave.”
By then, Brown had been personally devastated by gunfire.
On Jan. 9, 2016, his 8-year-old grandson Andre O’Neal Jr. — “Baby Dre” to his family — was accidentally shot and killed inside a Louisville home. The young man who was responsible, Elgin Anders, said he unintentionally dropped his loaded handgun on the ground, where it fired.
“We was grilling and everything. I came out to the grill. I had barbecue sauce on my fingers. I licked the sauce off my fingers. It just slipped right out of my fingers,” Anders told WDRB-TV.
Anders, 21, is charged with reckless homicide, a charge that carries up to five years in prison. The case has dragged on for 18 months.
Brown gets agitated when asked about his grandson’s death.
“That man might go to prison for a year for killing Baby Dre,” he said.
“The problem is, we don’t take these deaths seriously. People leave their guns out, bam, a child is dead, but it’s just an accident. People drop their guns, bam, a child is dead, but it’s just an accident. You were careless and now a child is dead, but hey, we won’t charge you with a crime, we think you’ve suffered enough. If we charge you with anything, maybe you get a year.”
Saving the children of the West End has started to feel to Brown like trying to empty a swimming pool with his two hands.
The same day in late May that he talked about losing his grandson, Louisville police were investigating the fatal shooting of yet another boy.
Dequante Hobbs Jr., 7, was struck in the head by a bullet that crashed through a window as he ate cake at his kitchen table. Police suspect that the shooter was involved in a fight outside the home that had nothing to do with the boy. Dequante’s relatives said he was the third young male in the family to be shot to death in the previous year.
“We just live in a waiting period now,” Brown said. “At any given time, we’re waiting to hear what terrible thing the next person with a gun has done to our community. It might be tonight. It might be tomorrow. But we know as sure as we’re sitting here that someone is going to pick up a gun soon, and as a result, someone is going to die.”