At a coffee shop near Lake Calhoun, Sami Rahamim pulled out an iPhone photo of his late father, Reuven Rahamim, who was killed Sept.27 at the Accent Signage company he founded.
It’s a shot of Reuven in Washington, D.C. He traveled there last summer for a conference, and he was thrilled to see the Braille sign system he invented installed throughout the White House.
Sami carried the photo with him in February, during his own D.C. trip to hear the State of the Union address and take part in a survivor lobbying day.
“I took it with me to the White House [because] I was there, and he was there,” he said. “We could all kind of be there together.”
Upon signing up as an advocate against gun violence, Sami, age 17, has endured a whirlwind couple of months. He met with 120 survivors of gun violence, and worked on a public service announcement sponsored by Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns. He met President Barack Obama in Minneapolis, and he met former U.S. Rep. GabrielleGiffords at a reception in U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s office. A camera crew with Organizing for Action, a nonprofit that works to support Obama’s national agenda, is filming Sami to generate footage for a new video. Sami granted a live interview to CNN and many other media outlets, testified at the State Capitol, and spoke at a Feb. 18 rally to end gun violence.
Sami writes his own speeches, watching rallies to learn how speakers tap into broad values. In lieu of attending high school, a tutor visits the house to help with homework.
“I’m a little burnt out. I have my moments,” Sami said.
He said a December trip to meet mass shooting survivors in New York inspired him to speak out. He met other people who lost loved ones in Tucson, Aurora and Virginia Tech.
“It felt good to have the feeling that I was going to maybe prevent this from happening to someone else,” he said.
The gun violence prevention effort
Sami said he is particularly hopeful about a couple of state bills related to background checks and straw purchases that look like they have a chance of passing.
When Sami decided to join the gun violence lobby, he shadowed Heather Martens, executive director of Protect Minnesota: Working to End Gun Violence.
“We do know from national research that background checks do disrupt illegal gun supply chains,” Martens said.
At a recent neighborhood meeting in Kingfield, Martens said the Accent Signage shooter, Andrew Engeldinger, had been charged with criminal misconduct in the past, but it did not disqualify him from obtaining a conceal and carry permit.
“Law enforcement folks have told us that people who are potentially violent often do have contact with the police before they do something violent,” Martens said.
Background check legislation remains controversial, however. Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association (NRA), wrote in opposition to universal background checks in a Feb. 10 USA Today editorial.
“Criminals won’t participate in a ‘universal’ system,” he wrote. “They’ll always steal or get their guns, and everything else they want, on the black market. Reasonable people know that criminals will never be part of the ‘universe.’”
In the past year, the Minneapolis Police Department has stepped up efforts to trace guns seized during criminal investigations.
“We’re tracing every gun that comes in to the property room using resources available to the federal government,” said police spokesman Sgt. William Palmer. “It’s a huge undertaking, and it’s important to the city of Minneapolis and the state of Minnesota.”
In September, a 31-year-old Minneapolis man was sentenced in federal court for providing false information while purchasing firearms, many of which were recovered during criminal investigations. Ryan Thomas Sandoval was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison, and prosecutors said he made at least seven straw purchases in a three-month period in 2011.
Grabbing a branch
Sami said gun violence was not dinner table conversation prior to September.
“It’s really kind of a shame, it seems like one of those things that until it affects you personally, you don’t get involved in,” he said. “But now is the time. You can’t go back and try to change the past, but we can definitely change the future.”
The gun violence lobby might be new territory, but Sami has long been familiar with Washington. Twice he traveled with Reuven to an AmericanIsrael Public Affairs Committee policy conference. And last fall, AIPAC also invited him to a summit for high school seniors to learn about pro-Israel lobbying work. He’s returning for another AIPAC conference in the coming weeks.
“It gave me a huge advantage in being able to do all this, because AIPAC is the largest and most successful lobbying organization in Washington,” Sami said. “They’re bigger than the NRA, bigger than the AARP. They’re huge. They believe that we have the most pro-Israel Congress right now in history, and that’s not something that happens on accident.”
As this reporter wrote in The Line, Reuven immigrated to the United States from Israel in 1974. He launched Accent Signage in the basement of his home, and he invented “Raster-Braille” in the late ‘80s as part of a project for St. Kate’s. The university was offering a degree program for the blind, and staff wanted to include Braille on their signs.
“This country has so much opportunity if you apply yourself,” Reuven told The Line in July. “I don’t know many people who have died of hard labor or studying too much in school. You need to be industrious.”
“He worked harder than anyone I’ve ever known. And that’s not necessarily 100 percent a compliment,” Sami said, laughing. “But he really believed in what he worked on.”
To weather the downturn in the construction industry, Accent expanded its international business and promoted an environmentally-friendly line of sign materials. Reuven was excited about the growing publicity of his work, Sami said. The afternoon he died, he told Sami about an interview he had just completed with a Star Tribune business writer.
“He was so ecstatic. Totally atthe top of his game,” Sami said. “He said it was a great interview, went really well. He was excited for it to come out.”
Community members in the Bryn Mawr neighborhood are working with an architect to create a memorial for Accent Signage. The community has so far raised $19,000 for the victims’ families.
“Me and my mom were both pushed off a cliff, and we had to grab onto something so we wouldn’t hit the ground,” Sami said. “The branch that I grabbed was the political advocacy, and what she was able to grab was working at the company. It’s been really beneficial for us to have that and start to climb back to the top.”
Reach Michelle Bruch at [email protected]