Local non-profit creating new program for youth gun offenders

Over the past month, there have been multiple cases of young kids involved in shootings. 

A 13-year-old shot a 16-year-old at Curtis Hixon Park on January 1. Shortly after that shooting, a 12-year-old was killed and a 14-year-old was hurt after a gun went off inside a home. 

Just last week, a 16-year-old was also arrested after shooting at officers with the Tampa Police Department. 

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For the last decade, Freddy Barton has been working with the courts running a violence prevention program for teens who commit crimes called Safe and Sound Hillsborough. 

In response to gun violence involving teens, the non-profit is now expanding to create a new program specifically for youth gun offenders. 

The first question whenever a teen is charged in a gun crime: How did they get it?

"Kids are getting their access to guns simply by people leaving them in their car doors," Barton said. "People are leaving their garage door openers in their cars, and they're able to open the garage."

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Barton said he wants to know why they felt they needed it.

"Because they feel other people have them, and they don't feel safe and the only way for them to feel safe is to pick one up as well," Barton said. "We're trying to get to them with our law enforcement partners to tell them that is not the way. There's another way."

Barton, the executive director of Safe and Sound Hillsborough, said it starts with positive reinforcement. 

"Everyday you have to pick a word or think of word that describes the positive characteristics of a male," Barton said.

Then, the kids write it along a silhouette outline. They've written words like brave, smart and on-point.

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"They can't get credit for the day unless they use this word or phrase three times," Barton said.

Currently, Barton has six kids in the program who come to Kings Forest Park five days a week. All six have been convicted of gun crimes and served at least 30 days in juvenile detention with the youngest being 13 years old.

As part of the program, Barton takes the kids to morgues and cemeteries showing them the real impacts of gun violence. They also visit trauma centers and meet with the families of gun violence victims. 

"We're letting them know it's not as glorious as you see on social media or in the videos or anywhere else," Barton said. "This is real and lives are real, and we have to change what you're doing right now."

Mostly recently, Barton purchased a clunker and now plans to teach them how to change a tire. He's also getting them in the kitchen and having a chef teach them how to follow recipe. Then, he requires them to prepare for their family – from setting the table to washing the dishes.

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"We're going to take them through all these tours, let them understand things, and then arm them with coping skills," Barton said. "Our kids don't have anger management, don't have coping skills, don't have the simple life skills to navigate this hard little thing we call life so by doing this, hopefully we can keep them out of trouble."

Each of the kids spends six months in the program and then are followed for the next six months and checked-on. Barton said he plans to continue to add new and unique experiences to show these kids there is a better path.