Kids and Guns: In Their Own Words

In a Maryland county where twelve teenagers were arrested on murder charges within one month, high school students talk about fear, violence and their uneasy faith in firearms

January 18, 2001 8:00 AM ET

Last August, twelve teenagers, some of whom knew each other, were arrested in Maryland, in Prince George's County, near Washington, D.C., for murders in which people had been shot. One of the murders was of a man who was withdrawing money from a cash machine. Another was of a Korean man who got into a dispute with kids outside his grocery store. Another was the result of an argument that broke out when one boy's girlfriend was shot by another boy with a water pistol. The police say three of the murders were committed on the same night by an eighteen-year-old boy who shot two men in a house he had broken into. About an hour and a half later, he shot a man at another house. In the first case, he may have been collecting a debt owed to someone who had engaged him to recover it, and in the second he may have been trying to rob a man he had been told kept a lot of money on hand. Prince George's County borders an impoverished area of Washington, D.C., and the towns in which most of the murders took place are near this boundary. More than half of the county is black.

The public schools are overwhelmingly African-American. The neighborhoods are generally collections of small frame houses or small brick houses, with little strip mails that have restaurants and laundromats and check-cashing places. Beyond them are highways and shopping centers with department stores, and the stadium where the Washington Redskins play. The police chief in Prince George's County told reporters that the murders were the consequence of guns being so easily available to teenagers.

I am aware that teenagers are especially susceptible to suicide because they often have unrealistic ideas about what will happen to them once they are dead. They think that they will start life again somewhere else, with better parents and better prospects. Or that they will be united in heaven with someone they love – a relation or friend who died before they did. They tend to feel that whatever existence awaits them is better than the one they are enacting. I wondered if they entertained the same sort of compensatory reasoning in their feelings about guns: That it was fun to wave a gun around and scare people with it, and that it made you feel powerful when every other element in your life made you feel as if you had no power at all. That it might make you feel protected from bullies and thieves. That it might make you feel as if you were a more substantial person than you actually were. Whether it might make you fearless.

Murder is the converse side of the indifference toward life that suicides often feel – your existence is worthless to me. Since guns and violence appeared to be so prevalent in Prince George's County, I thought it might be interesting to find out what guns mean to people who are now young. I talked to John Farrell, the police chief of Prince George's County; I talked to students at high schools in Bladensburg and Suitland, where some of the murders occurred; and I talked to a boy who had been arrested for being involved in one of the murders.

I asked a number of students whether they knew anyone who had been shot, and a lot of them said that they did. "My brother got shot one time in a holdup," a boy said. "Man pointed a shotgun at him. My brother put his hand on the barrel to push it aside, then he started running. Gun go off. He didn't even know he'd been shot. His friend said, 'Look at your hand.' His hand just felt numb. He only got two fingers and a thumb now." A girl said, "My cousin – she didn't like men no more, she like girls – and she was at a carnival, like an amusement park, and these men try to pick her up, and she ran from them. They ran after her, and shot her in the back. She dead." Another boy said, "My mother been shot twelve times. She was shot four times once when she was pregnant with my little brother." More than once I heard about a twelve-year-old boy who had been shot for his sneakers. On one occasion, when I asked a group of kids if they had heard the story, a girl said, "He was my boyfriend. He was on the way to his grandfather's house; it was in D.C. They took his shoes first – they wanted his clothes, too, what he had on, but he was like, 'You already got my shoes.' If it was a dude, they shoot you right away. If it was a female, they might take a minute. I didn't hear from him for about five or six days; I thought something was wrong. I called his house, but most times there was no answer. When I found out, for a minute, I used to think, I'm going to be able to go see him, and call him. I was thinking this was a dream I was going to wake up from. I wasn't with him for a week or two, and it just happened like that. January 1998. My sister says some of his friends found out who did this to him, and I think they went to hurt him or killed him. I don't know for sure."

Romance: The image of the American pioneer in possession of a gun is apocryphal. The early American settlers were farmers. The maintenance of their fields and barns did not permit them time to hunt. What few guns they had were absurdly inaccurate. In addition, most of them were broken, and in most towns and cities there wasn't anyone to fix them. What made guns popular and their ownership widespread was the Civil War. Soldiers took their guns home after Appomattox, having developed an attachment to them and the feeling that guns were essential to the way that they regarded themselves. In America, approximately 17,000 people a year are shot and killed. According to Michael Bellesiles, author of Arming America, a history of guns and America, thousands more die from gunshots in suicides or accidents. Often, as many people are killed by guns in a week in America as are killed in all of western Europe in a year. In Prince George's County, where nearly 800,000 people live, sixty-seven people were killed by guns last year. Eleven of these were the victims of teenagers.

When I talked to Chief Farrell in his office, he said, "in my view, since the crack epidemic of the Eighties, there's been a proliferation of firearms that are accessible to everyone, especially to young men who either don't have the emotional maturity, or the sense, not to use them. A dispute will come up – my girlfriend was disrespected, we've got to do something about that – and you'll have four or five kids who will get in a car and drive off, and they may not go there planning to murder, but they get there and the shooting starts. You interview these young people, and they just don't seem to understand the consequences, or foresee them. There's a callousness. It's almost as if they feel they did something that had to be done. They don't come across as bad. Many of them have seen a lot of violence, but you don't sense that they're not redeemable. One of the kids we arrested, the one who shot the three men in one night, he was very calm, very aware of what was going on. Some guys seem almost cold and detached; it's almost like they don't realize what they've done. He understands he's done wrong and is in trouble, but there's no remorse. In him, that moral compass never developed."

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