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.”
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.
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.