In Bladensburg, where one of the murders that a teenager was arrested for involved a veterinarian and his wife who were robbed as they walked from his office to their car, I talked at the high school with students in a classroom with windows looking out onto a parking lot. Thirteen of the twenty students were black, four were Latino, two were Asian and one was white. All of them intend to go to college. I asked why kids feel it necessary to have a gun.
"You want authority sometimes," a girl said, "if you too nice and people always take advantage of you, or if you get in a situation where you're going to get hurt. Or maybe you have an argument."
"Most times you just can't let it pass," a boy said. "You might want to, but you get too mad, and now you'll have to get even. Once your temper goes up, you can't think about it twice."
Why not just challenge your opponent to fight?
"Some kids scared to fight," a boy said. "If you fight and don't win, you might lose the reputation, can't afford that. So weapons comes around. From the male's perspective, weapons is the second thing you think about. If I can't fight him, I can get a gun next."
"Sometimes they grew up around it," a girl said. "If your parents sold drugs, they were violent with you, you become what you know. If you're raised around people who are goofy, you're going to be that way, too. You probably think it's no escape from it, so you just settle into it."
When I asked if there ever were guns in the school, there was a pause, and then one boy said, somewhat bashfully, "I know incidents where there has been a gun in school."
"When that happens," I asked, "do you know that the person has it?"
"It's usually like, the word spreads around," a boy said. "They brag in front of the right people – tattletales – then everybody know by the end of the day."
"Some people bring guns to school," a boy said, "be quiet all day, follow you home, then just shoot you quiet at the end of the day – boom, boom! You try to know when they are going to do what they're going to do, so you can dodge the bullets."
I asked if there ever had been a shooting in the school, and several kids said that there hadn't. "Before I came here, last year in Laurel," a girl said. "They kept it real quiet, but people pulled the gun on someone in the bathroom."
"They pull it on you, just threaten," a boy said. "They don't pull the trigger."
I asked what circumstances can lead to a gun's being used.
"Ego, jealousies, status, places where you're going to live," a girl said. "Like, if your town be beefing with another town. Starting arguments. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Opposite sex. All these things bring it on. Clothes. That's why I'm not too hung up on fashion. It ain't practical. Fashion and money have a lot to do with violence in high school."
"Egos, that's a big part," a boy said. "Our pride, our dignity, that's our most important thing. When that's hurt, it's hurt inside, you want revenge."
"You might accidentally bump somebody," a girl said. "You apologize, and they say, 'What you say?' They try to lower your self-esteem. How I feel, the weaker person uses the gun. It's always harder to walk away. The stronger person walks away."
"You use a gun, and it's no going back," a boy said. "If you stab a person, they recover, you can apologize. You hit them with a brick, they get better, you can apologize. You use the gun, there's nobody to apologize to, you got to lay low, you got to leave town for a while, and then maybe some member of their family be looking for you, or someone you related to."
"Myself," said a girl, "I think it's more appealing to get beat up and go to school with a split lip on the bus the next day than to be in a casket."
I had arranged to meet the kid who had been arrested in one of the shootings in his lawyer's office, and he was an hour late. He owed money to the lawyer and thought the lawyer had asked him to come to his office not so that we could speak but so the lawyer could ask him for his money. When the young man arrived, he turned out to be tall and dark-skinned, with a round face and sharp cheekbones. He was nineteen. He sat on a couch against a walt and leaned forward, with his elbows on his knees.
"Got my first gun when I was eleven," he said. "My best friend, he lived with his mother and his stepfather, and the stepfather was in the military. He had a gun laying around. It wasn't laying around, but it was in the house, my friend knew where it was at. He had the gun, I wanted the gun. His mother and his stepfather had some problems, or whatever; my friend moved away – him and his mother – stepfather stayed. Before he left, my friend told me where the gun was at – in a closet. I broke into the house. Daytime. I knew nobody was home. I broke in through a little window. I went looking for the gun. I found the gun, got the gun. I took it home, it was a .38 special.
"People give me respect now, thinking I'm being bad, but the thing is, the gun don't work. Didn't shoot, so I had a gun, but it didn't shoot. I gave it to my friend, he was just keeping it for me, and he was carrying it sometimes. Him and his friends shopped for some bullets, they tried to shoot it in the woods, and the dude he showed it to, he said I got a broken gun, needed something like a pin. I only had it about two weeks.
"Till I was eighteen then, I didn't need a gun. I wanted a gun, but I didn't need it. Turn eighteen, I bought me a gun from someone on the street. I paid fifty dollars for a .380 with a clip. This why I bought it: I had an Eddie Bauer. I had a .380 with a clip, and I had a green Eddie Bauer coat. At that time, people be jumping out, taking coats and such stuff. Pull the car up beside you if you walking, jump out with gauges and nines. You jump out on me, I was going to use my gun to protect my coat. I wasn't on no robbery sprees, I was like, you take my coat, and when you turn your back I was going to shoot you in the leg, and when you fall down I was going to take your gun, get my coat back, leave you there. Wasn't nobody leaving with my coat but me.
"Thing is, I only had that gun a couple months. I was walking on my way home one time – I didn't have my Eddie, it was home – my friend pull up beside me. He had just bought a car, and he had a female with him when he pulled up on me. He say, 'Come with me to drop this girl off.' I let him know I had my gun. I said, 'Take me home first, so I could put it up.' 'No way; she just live down the street.' I got in the car. We stop at a gas station, he buy a blunt – a Philly cigar, you know, to wrap dope in. He roll the gun up in a T-shirt and put the gun under the hood.
"As we pull out, police come up behind us. I'm sitting in the back. Police run the tags, then my friend name through; my friend got a warrant. They sit me and the girl on the curb. They search the car, they didn't find nothing. They bring a dog. Going to the dog, 'Find it, find something, dog.' Next thing, police open the hood, dog find the T-shirt. They ask me, 'Who gun is it?' I say, 'It was in the hood, I'm sitting in the back, I don't know nothing about no gun.' Charged anyway."
When I asked if he had ever fired the gun, he said, "You mean, go to a shooting range, shoot like that? Never done that. I went to a park one day, though; Fourth of July, I shot a whole clip. When the fireworks went off, I raised it in the air, went blare, blam, blam."
I asked if he still thought it was necessary to have a gun. "People respect you more if you got a gun," he said. "Understand, ain't nobody out there trying to get shot. If they know you got a gun, they ain't messing with you."
I asked if it was difficult to get a gun, and he said, "For a long time I wanted one, but I couldn't ever find one. People don't want to sell you a gun, people holding on to them. Sell you theirs, they might not get another."
The lawyer had suggested that the boy had planned to buy the gun that had been used in the shooting the police believed he had been involved in, so I asked him, "Do you care if a gun you're buying has been used in a crime?"
"Nobody want a crime gun," he said. "Nobody want a dirty gun. Everybody want a fresh gun, out of the box. If you only got a little bit of money, you get a dirty gun. Fifty dollars, you might get a gun. Thousand people been killed with that gun. With a fresh gun, it get used now, it new, it's my dirt. Anything happen with that gun, I do something, it's my dirt. Say I got to buy a brand-new gun, I wasn't planning to do nothing with it, just have it, but something happen, somebody running up on me. If I did some dirt with it, I switch with somebody."
I asked if he could tell when someone had a gun with them. "Some people, you just know they got a gun," he said. "They looking for trouble. The other day, I went to the subway to pick up my mother. I'm waiting for her to get out, here come a guy up the escalator, he had the red bandanna, the sweat pants pulled down, he walk around with his mug on. 'You run this? I'm up here now, come mess with me, I got something for you. You like these shoes? Come take them,' striding around. He was probably just in his own world, thinking, 'This how I feel today,' but I'm thinking he's got a gun.
"Me, I don't want to kill nobody. I don't want to do nothing to you, but if it's somebody just going to keep on and keep on testing, I'm putting it down on the table for them. 'Dog, stop being in my face, before something happen.' Do your own thing. Don't hate, participate."
Then he turned to his lawyer and asked, "Can I go now?" and he did.
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