The Rev. Richard Pittman grabbed the microphone inside a St. Paul church basement and steadied himself for a different kind of sermon. One that could ease the pain of a city plagued by gun violence that has claimed 21 lives this year.

"Personally, I'm tired of seeing balloons wrapped around trees. Our young people should be celebrating their birthdays and graduations. Instead, we're celebrating death," said Pittman, who moderated a community forum Thursday night at Arlington Hills Lutheran Church. "Our future looks bleak if we don't stop the bloodshed."

The meeting, hosted by the St. Paul NAACP, brought together citizens and law enforcement agents, including state Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington and Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher.

One by one, elected leaders and police officials declared the recent uptick of homicidal violence a "public health crisis" and urged community members to unite in the fight to intervene.

"A lot of people are losing hope because they think the killings are out of control," said Pittman, of House of Praise Church, which rents space in the Arlington Hills building. He denounced the ease with which children can access firearms — and too often use them to settle petty disputes.

St. Paul Police Deputy Chief Paul Iovino told the crowd of about 200 that if he asked a group of teenagers that size whether they would know where to find a gun this weekend, half would raise their hands.

"That's an epidemic," said Iovino, an East Side native whose own father was murdered when he was a toddler. "We can't be idle. … It's our job now to be interrupters."

Organizers began passing out fliers for the event several weeks ago — before three people were killed during a nine-hour span in Minnesota's capital city. Before a good Samaritan was shot in the head while trying to help a car-crash victim outside his house. Before RayVell Carter was gunned down leaving Bible study with his 8-year-old daughter.

And before the death toll climbed to seven in a month that isn't over. That's not counting a Sept. 15 fatal police shooting that killed Ronald K. Davis.

Unless the slayings stop, the city is on pace to exceed its worst year in the past decade — 24 homicides in 2017.

The Rev. Marea Perry, who lost her son to gun violence May 3, said she tires of meeting other grieving mothers. But people cannot have too many conversations about how to stop the volley of bullets, she said. "I'm hurting. I'm mourning," she said, as tears streamed down her face. "But I'm still standing."

The spike in shootings comes amid debate at City Hall and the community over whether to cut five police officer positions from St. Paul's 2020 budget, and whether to invest in technology that alerts police when shots are fired in the city.

Mayor Melvin Carter has suggested scaling back the nine new officer positions he proposed last year to four, noting the Police Department budget would still increase by $4.5 million.

Local clergy members invited Carter to Thursday's gathering, but a spokesman for the mayor said he was unable to attend. His father, Melvin Carter Jr., a retired St. Paul police officer, appeared instead. He asked residents to find the courage to come forward to report suspicious activity and help solve crimes.

"It hurts me to think there are community members out there who know about this shooting and aren't cooperating with law enforcement," he said.

Harrington said policing will require additional resources to combat the root causes of crime. Young men, in particular, need jobs, education and housing to redirect them from gangs, he said.

"All that, plus the moral authority of the community to stop the madness," Harrington said. "I know we can find our way out of this."