Kids and Guns: In Their Own Words

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The next day, I went to Suitland, the town where the Korean grocer had been shot. Several kids at the high school knew the teenagers who had been charged with his death. About one of them, Brandon Jerome Harland, who is seventeen, one of the kids said, "Call him Little B, 'cause he's short." The kids told me that girls carry guns, too, but not as much as boys do. More likely, several of them said, "a female will carry a knife." When I asked why a girl would feel she needed a gun, one of them looked at me like I was simple and said, "'Cause they make girl Eddie Bauers. They don't just make boy E.B.'s."

A girl told me that a good reason for a gun is to "let people know that you are ready for them. My cousin, he's twelve, he has a gun. He won't – if a person looks at him, whatever, if it gets to a point -- he won't fight them. He goes right to his room, and he flashes it. He's not scared of police, much stuff as he's been through. Him and his stupid friends, they all dumb. One of the friends got in a little altercation, and my cousin gave him the gun, it's like they pass it back and forth, just to scare. He show it off, but it's going to come a day when he show it to the wrong person. That person going to get something bigger than what he got, and he going to shoot him for real."

"Boys be, like, holding all the time," another girl said. "They going to be boasting if they have a weapon on them. It's going to make you hot, though, if you shoot. You ain't going to use your gun in school, unless you are asking for a death wish."

"Some people," said another girl, "it makes them feel different, it makes them feel some kind of power. The rumor be around, 'You a punk,' so they go get the gun. I'm not a punk. You are a punk because you're using a gun."

"There's a different way you act if you have a gun," a boy said. "You act like you the lord, you act like nothing can stop you, act like that gun can save you from everything."

One boy said that he and his friends had been robbed one day while they were sitting on a stoop. A car pulled up and a man jumped out and faced them with a gun. When I asked how he felt about it afterward, he said, "You get robbed, you feel a little violated. I was playing basketball just before they came, so I didn't really have nothing they wanted except some shoes. After it was over, though, my friends wanted to kill them. Every time we on the corner now, we watching cars after that, looking around. My brother one time, 1998, he got robbed, got his shoes taken while he waiting for the bus after school. He had to walk back into school. It was embarrassing with no shoes, everybody start laughing at him."

"When you pull a gun on somebody," a girl said, "you're disrespecting them so much you might as well pull the trigger, because the other person going to come back and kill you. You're telling me I'm nothing, you're telling me you can just kill me, and my life is nothing."

"It's too much being glamorized," a boy said. "The TV and the movies, they don't really understand what's going on, they kind of glamorize people getting shot, it's entertainment, but if it's your family member getting shot, it's a different thing. Most of the time people get shot, it doesn't bother you, you think, 'It's just life. That's how it's supposed to be.' At night when you in your house, you hear boom, that's people go shooting. I hear it all the time at my house, 'most every night."

As I left the high school, I was glad that I was not a kid who went to school there. I thought that I am not made to flourish in a culture in which guns circulate, just as I am not made to flourish in prison. I haven't got the kind of manner that confronts every slight, that makes your adversary know, as a convict once told me, that the prize is not worth the price. I thought of the girl who had said, "How I feel, the weaker person uses the gun. It's always harder to walk away. The stronger person walks away," and the idea that for hundreds of years in Europe, a person who used a gun to settle a dispute was considered a coward. Courage and the ability to fight were what mattered, and the gun made a weaker person the equal of a stronger one, which is of course a democratic idea. I also wondered what would happen to a tall, handsome boy with beautiful eyes who had said to me about guns and violence, "It's like a lack of unity. We are not together. Especially black people. We're killing each other. When someone gets killed, we the suspect and the witness both." Driving past a small house where a gutter was hanging loose and a man was fixing a flat tire in his driveway, I couldn't help wondering whether such an observation would ever be made by a black or white child in a prosperous town.

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