Garland speaks with victims' families as new exhibit highlights the faces of gun violence

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Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks next to a wall with photographs of victims of gun violence during the Inaugural Gun Violence Survivors' Summit at ATF Headquarters in Washington, Tuesday, April 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

WASHINGTON – Children fatally shot in their classrooms. Law enforcement gunned down while doing their jobs. Victims of domestic violence. And people killed on American streets.

Photos of their faces line the wall as part of a new exhibit inside the federal agency in Washington that's responsible for enforcing the nation’s gun laws. It's meant to serve as a powerful reminder to law enforcement of the human toll of gun violence they are working to prevent.

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Attorney General Merrick Garland on Tuesday told relatives of those killed and survivors that America’s gun violence problem can sometimes feel so enormous that it seems like nothing can be done. But, he added, “that could not be farther from the truth.”

“In the effort to keep our country safe from gun violence, the Justice Department will never give in and never give up," Garland said during a dedication ceremony Tuesday inside the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. “We know what is at stake.”

Garland's remarks came after he met privately with some relatives of those whose photos are included in the exhibit. They were in Washington for a summit at ATF that brought together people impacted by gun violence, law enforcement and others to discuss ways to prevent the bloodshed. Among other participants were survivors like Mia Tretta, who was shot at Saugus High School in California in 2019 and has become an intern at ATF.

The more than 100 faces on the wall include Dylan Hockley, one of 20 first graders killed in the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School; Tiffany Enriquez, a police officer killed in Hawaii in 2020; and Ethel Lance, a victim of the 2015 Charleston church shooting in South Carolina. They will remain there until next year, when photos of a new group of gun violence victims will replace their faces.

Clementina Chery said seeing her son Louis' photo on the wall brought back painful memories of “what the world lost" when the 15-year-old was caught in a crossfire and killed while walking in Boston in 1993. But she said in an interview after the ceremony that she's heartened by law enforcement's willingness to listen to and learn from the experiences of those who have been directly affected.

President Joe Biden has made his administration’s efforts to curb gun violence a key part of his reelection campaign, seeking to show the Democrat is tough on crime. Even though violent crime — which rose following the coronavirus pandemic — has fallen in the U.S., Donald Trump and other Republicans have tried to attack the president by painting crime in Democratic-led cities as out of control.

ATF Director Steve Dettelbach told the crowd that while there has been progress in curbing gun violence, now is the time to "double down and triple down on action to protect life and safety."

“We also honor the memories not just by thinking of individuals like this, these people, but by taking action," Dettelbach said. "Action to prevent more faces from being added to this tragic wall.”

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