ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Sami Rahamim has committed statistics about gun deaths to memory, folding them into sentences that make his case. He talks like a lawyer, not a high school senior — no pauses or filler, no public trace of his pain.
On Sept. 27, Sami’s father Reuven Rahamim was shot and killed along with five others at Accent Signage Systems in Minneapolis, the company he founded, by an employee who had just been fired.
In the months since, Sami has become a 17-year-old lobbyist for reducing gun violence.
Sami has been at the state Capitol nearly every day for a month, missing school to push for legislation that would boost background checks and tighten gun regulations. He’s spoken at churches, synagogues and gun violence forums.
He flew to New York last month to talk with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a staunch gun control supporter. He’ll be at President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address late this month with Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison. And on Monday, when Obama visits Minneapolis to pitch his proposals for reducing gun violence, Sami will be there — not just as a victim, but as a committed advocate.
“Nobody would blame him if he were curled up in a corner crying even until this moment,” Ellison said. “But he’s on his feet. He’s talking to people about gun violence. He has truly harnessed his grief.”
Sami said he’s not sure if his work is an outlet for the pain of losing his father.
“I haven’t totally broken down yet,” he said. “Until that happens, I’m going to stick with this and see to it that we can pass the things we want to pass to make a real positive difference.”
Sami traces his political activism to his father, who emigrated from Israel in the 1970s. Sami went to Washington, D.C., last summer to learn how to lobby with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. U.S. relations with his homeland were the only issue that mattered to his father, Sami said.
Sami said he didn’t think much about guns or violence.
He was on his way to visit colleges in Wisconsin on Sept. 27 when he heard about the shooting in Minneapolis, right in the neighborhood where his father built his business. He sent his dad a text: Be careful.
Sami said he turned to religion after his dad’s death. He started waking up at 7 a.m. to go to his synagogue, where he says the “Mourner’s Kaddish” for his father every day.
He didn’t wade into the gun control debate until after the Dec. 14 shooting in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 children and six teachers dead.
“It hadn’t been enough time,” Sami said.
That night, he went to a Protect Minnesota rally against gun violence in Minneapolis and asked Executive Director Heather Martens what he could do. Martens said it clicked when Sami told her his name.
“Some people never get involved because it’s too painful. His way of dealing with this loss is to throw himself into the task of preventing this from happening to anyone else,” Martens said.
She said his intelligence, poise and maturity helped him understand the issues and memorize statistics quickly.
“I consume information. I was never athletic, so let’s say I have something going for me,” Sami joked.
Since then, it’s been non-stop work: speaking events, strategizing and meeting with state lawmakers like St. Paul Rep. Michael Paymar, who unveiled a bill last week that would require universal background checks for gun purchases.
Paymar, too, said he was surprised at how quick Sami picked up on the issues.
“At 17 years old, he’s figured the lobbying aspect out, which is not easy to do,” he said. “He’s right in there, talking strategy and sharing his ideas.”
Those who have worked with Sami in the past month marvel at how he has approached gun violence as a national problem — not just a crusade for his father.
“Sometimes a personal tragedy makes somebody a champion,” Paymar said. “At the end of the day, I hope he really sees a payoff.”