Created: 02/05/2013 7:18 AM KSTP.com By: Jennie Olson
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, Rahamim's father, Reuven Rahamim, was shot and killed along with five others at Accent Signage Systems in Minneapolis, the company he founded, by an ex-worker who recently had been fired. In the months since, Sami Rahamim has become a 17-year-old lobbyist for reducing gun violence.
Rahamim 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 in Minnesota. He's spoken at churches, synagogues and gun violence forums.
And Monday, Rahamim sat two chairs from President Barack Obama as part of a round-table discussion on how best to reduce gun violence, before the president took his push to tighten gun laws on national TV from Minneapolis. Rahamim shared his story and ideas with Obama - 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," Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison said. "But he's on his feet. He's talking to people about gun violence. He has truly harnessed his grief."
Rahamim 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."
Rahamim traces his political activism to his father, who emigrated from Israel in the 1970s. Rahamim 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, Rahamim said.
Rahamim 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.
Rahamim 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," Rahamim 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 Rahamim 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 Rahamim's intelligence, poise and maturity helped him understand the issues and memorize statistics quickly. They're second nature to him now: Gun owners are 22 times more likely to hurt themselves or a family member than an intruder, he says. Almost 40 percent of weapons bought in Minnesota weren't subject to a background check.
"I consume information. I was never athletic, so let's say I have something going for me," Rahamim joked.
Since then, it's been nonstop work - speaking events, strategizing and meeting with state lawmakers - and very little school. Rahamim, who lives in the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park with his mother and sister, is finishing his last two high school classes by meeting weekly at the family's home with a tutor. His mom and sister weren't crazy about him missing school until they realized "that this is something that is really my calling," Rahamim said.
He flew to New York last month to talk with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a staunch gun control supporter. He'll be at the president's State of the Union address later this month with Ellison. Bloomberg's group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, covered travel costs for both trips with a special fund for victims of gun violence, Rahamim said.
The president's visit kicked off a very busy week for Rahamim. He'll spend much of the week at the Capitol, where lawmakers were starting three days of hearings Tuesday on several bills that he and Protect Minnesota support. They would ban ammunition magazines of more than 10 rounds; require universal background checks for all gun purchases; and give law enforcement more authority to deny applications for permits to carry weapons.
Rep. Michael Paymar, who wrote the background check bill, said he was surprised at how quickly Rahamim 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 Rahamim 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."
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