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Vigil for 7-year-old Xavier Usanga killed by stray bullet in St. Louis

A photo of Xavier Usanga is surrounded by teddy bears in his memorial on Wednesday. Xavier, 7, was killed by a stray bullet outside his home on Monday.

Aug. 14, 2019 Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

During a 90-minute stopover in St. Louis Wednesday to meet with our editorial board, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi got an earful about America’s real gun problem. For all the attention on mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, the epicenter of America’s gun problem is right here in St. Louis. We need focused federal help.

Pelosi entered our offices holding the newspaper and expressing shock at Monday’s shooting death of 7-year-old Xavier Usanga. But the real shock is that his was the 17th shooting death of a minor in St. Louis and surrounding areas since December, an appalling statistic that underscores not only how far out of control the gun problem is but also how brazenly the assailants disregard innocent human life. This screams for a response from our nation’s leaders.

Sadly, Pelosi’s only answer was to reiterate her support for tougher federal laws requiring background checks for gun purchases. Background checks certainly would help, but not nearly enough to stem the rampant bloodshed that makes St. Louis one of the most dangerous cities in America.

The problem, as we explained to Pelosi, is that state lawmakers have stripped local law enforcers of the essential tools they need to fight gun crime. Open-carry gun laws grant would-be criminals the ability to flagrantly display their firepower but leave police nearly powerless to intervene until the moment the trigger is pulled. For kids like Xavier, that’s too late.

After the mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart, Dmitriy Andreychenko decided to test his open-carry rights by walking into a Springfield, Mo., Walmart in full body armor and carrying an assault rifle — his mass-killing potential on full display. The law protected him, but he was arrested anyway for the terror he caused.

Pelosi acknowledged the Andreychenko conundrum but seemed at a loss other than to repeat that federal action on background checks was the answer. Even Mayor Lyda Krewson paid a surprise visit as Pelosi was departing to emphasize the need for federal help to empower local authorities.

Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-University City, has co-authored a bill with Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Chicago, to do exactly that. In addition to background checks, the bill, HR 3435, would allow local governments to restrict open-carry even if state law allows it. Local governments could restrict the sale or transfer of semi-automatic firearms and high-capacity magazines, and limit the quantity and type of ammunition individuals may purchase.

Krewson backs the bill. So does Aldermanic President Lewis Reed. Even though Clay and Kelly introduced the bill in June, Pelosi seemed unfamiliar with it. That’s sad, because this bill needs a high-profile champion to ensure that the urgent problem of urban gun violence doesn’t get buried as Washington debates a response to mass shootings.

St. Louis parents are scared — and rightly so — especially in the nine St. Louis neighborhoods where the police say 41% of murders and 35% of all gun assaults are occurring. Krewson and Police Chief John Hayden are openly asking residents to break the longstanding taboo against snitching and start telling police what they know about the killers in their midst.

The message to the community is the same as the one directed at Washington: Empower police to do their jobs and fight back against the armed criminals terrorizing our streets.