Speaking from Experience

updated 12/18/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/18/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

SLOUCHED ON THE BLACK LEATHER couch in his Boston office, gangly Michael Kennedy is leafing through a stack of juvenile murder statistics and becoming progressively angrier. "Shot by a boyfriend...killed at a party...killed on the way to a teens-against-gang-violence meeting. The fact that a classroom full of kids is killed every single day in the United States is something that we should do something about," says the 37-year-old son of Robert Kennedy

For Kennedy, of course, the issue of gun violence is intensely personal. His uncle, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated in Dallas 32 years ago last month, and his father was shot down in a Los Angeles hotel in 1968. Still, when John Rosenthal, a close Kennedy friend, came up with the idea in March for an organization to raise awareness of gun violence and promote safety precautions like trigger locks, he hesitated to mention it to Michael because of the Kennedy family's tragic past. "I was prepared for him to be very supportive but to not want to get involved," says Rosenthal, 39, an activist for the homeless who is a Boston-area real estate developer. But Kennedy backed the project immediately. "The reason I feel so strongly is that I can empathize with the pain so many others feel every day because of this kind of violence," says Kennedy. "I know what the impact is on a family."

In October he and Rosenthal, who have formed the nonprofit group Stop Handgun Violence, unveiled the first effort in what they hope will become a national public awareness campaign: a mammoth 252-foot-long, 20-foot-high billboard on the side of a parking garage the two own near Boston's Fenway Park. On the sign are the faces of 15 children killed by handguns—the number slain each day. At the ceremony, the usually poker-faced Kennedy was visibly moved as parents talked about their dead children. "I cannot explain how the pain of losing my son has affected me and my family," said a weeping Clementina Chery, 35, of Boston, whose 15-year-old son, Louis Brown, was killed in 1993 on his way to a Christmas party. "The billboard is no answer," she said, "but it is part of the solution." Houston highway supervisor Jim Tarr, who lost his stepson Jason, 11, when a friend accidentally fired his parents' .38-caliber handgun told of waking up nights to hear his wife Lynda sobbing in another part of house. "To watch a mother talk about losing her son or a dad talk about hearing his wife sobbing years later " Kennedy says softly "It was the most agonizing thing "

An agony Kennedy knows only too well. The sixth of Robert and Ethel Kennedy's 11 children, Michael was only 10 the night Robert was killed. Although the walls and desk of his office are lined with photos of his murdered father, friends say he seldom talks about him. Now, Kennedy and wife Victoria Gifford, 38 (daughter of sports commentator Frank Gifford and his first wife, Maxine) have three children of their own—Michael Jr., 12, Kyle 11 and Rory, 8. Michael has long been involved behind the scenes in politics the unofficial Kennedy family business even managing his Uncle Ted's bitterly fought reelection campaign last year So far though he has hesitated to run for office himself This fall he rejected suggestions that he make a bid for the Massachusetts congressional seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Gerry Studds. "I don't think he has the acetylene torch [for politics] blowing inside," says a friend, though Kennedy's ongoing recovery from an admitted "dependence on alcohol"—he checked himself into a treatment center in January—may have been a factor in his decision.

Kennedy has, however, combined the family commitment to public service with an entrepreneurial streak. While studying at Harvard (where he earned a B.A. in history in 1980), he and a friend founded a whitewater-rafting business. He went on to earn a law degree from the University of Virginia, succeeding his brother Joe (who went to Congress in 1986) as chairman of Citizens Energy Corp., the nonprofit group Joe had founded nine years earlier to supply low-cost heating oil to the poor. Kennedy has expanded the organization's fund-raising and charitable activities, including sending emergency medical supplies to Africa in 1989 and providing at-cost AZT to poor AIDS patients.

It was at CEC, while improving the energy efficiency of a low-income housing project in 1984, that Kennedy met Rosenthal. Fast friends who share an enthusiasm for Whitewater rafting and snowboarding, they have now put up 100 billboards in Massachusetts as the first stage in their educational and lobbying effort. "We want to prevent gun violence without taking [guns] away," says Rosenthal, who keeps a shotgun for skeet shooting.

Houston's Lynda Tarr, who with her husband helped push through a Texas law last year to hold gun owners responsible for keeping guns out of children's reach, says she recalls rocking one of her three sons, then an infant, when she heard that Robert Kennedy had been shot. Little did she expect that another of her children would share Kennedy's fate. "There's always an empty place at the table," she says. Adds Kennedy: "Any individual's death is devastating to those around them. This is not just statistics "

CYNTHIA SANZ
TOM DUFFY in Boston

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