How many people do you know that have been shot? The question was posed by Joe Hiem, in his Washington Post Magazine article, “What’s Your Number”. Although he interviewed nine people, there was a particular interview that he did with a Washingtonian like myself that tore at my conscience. This interviewee, a young man, grew up just as I did, in the inner city corridors of D.C. The only difference between this interviewee and myself is that I am 68 and he was born in the 80s. He grew up in what some of us called the “Dodge City” of the 90’s where drive-byes and shoot-outs were common. This interview resonated with me and made me think about how many people I actually knew who had been the shooter, the victim or both. It also cued me as to how unconsciously de-sensitized I and many others like me had become.
What was the actual number of people I knew whose lives were maimed or destroyed because of loose guns? This question also prompted me to investigate the violence of firearms that continues to exist not only in my present life, but has enveloped the lives of Americans in general since Columbine. As I recalibrate, the interviewee in the article revealed to me that I, like many others, had been submerged into a society of gun activity, becoming desensitized like soldiers in declared war zones with subtle evidences of post-traumatic stress and mistrust of the environment. As I examine my up-bringing in the inner city streets of DC, I am amazed at how uncomfortable I became as I forced myself to remember and count gun-shot victims and perpetrators I had interacted with on some level. While I counted, I also wept.
About a year after graduating from high school, my best friend’s brother was shot in the face in a drug related incident. The atmosphere at the funeral home was foreboding. As innocent bystanders, we had this feeling we could be “shot up”, too. They didn’t even place Jeffrey’s obituary in the paper, but some of his enemies showed up at the funeral home, looked in the casket and said in earshot of everyone, “I’m glad the n——‘s dead.” They walked out and we sat there frozen, fearing they might return as had happened at several funerals during this turbulent time. Tragically, this same friend’s mother was killed by her father. He used a gun.
In my childhood neighborhood, several died or were maimed because of domestic fights, and gang or drug-related conflict involving guns. One young man in particular is in a wheel chair today with a permanent injury to his spine because of a stray bullet. Another family friend playing with my son in a friendly game of basketball, was caught in the cross-fire of a drug-related reprisal that he had nothing to do with. When he was taken to the hospital and considered stable with a gunshot in the buttocks, they barely questioned him and released him to make room for the severely wounded that kept rolling into the hospital that day. In another scenario, one of my son’s schoolmates descended into the 80s drug culture and morphed into an “enforcer” whose mentality was to kill or be killed. To embolden himself, he got super high and pumped bullets point-blank into his perceived nemesis, killing him instantly. If you have a gun, you will use a gun. I used to fear for my son because of the life style of some of his school mates, but now I have another underlying fear. He’s in law enforcement. His job requires he carry a gun.
To go back deeper into this backdrop of gun violence, when I was a part of an African dance troupe in the mid-70s, a friend and member of the dance troupe shot her common-law husband to death. Because of documented physical abuse, it was ruled as self-defense. Within that same community of artists, a rising poet shot himself, leaving a devastated wife and two children. One death was an apparent reaction to abuse, the other an apparent reaction to depression. Their solution was the gun.
As another entry to this odyssey, I taught at an at-risk middle school in Maryland during the 90s and I had to still myself, swallow my shock and put on a game face to re-harden my persona against the gun violence that my young students witnessed almost daily. I will never forget one Monday morning when the children got off the bus and came up to my homeroom class on the second floor of the school. They were wailing and crying as they walked up the stairs. There was a drive-by, one of the girls said to me when I asked, “What is all of this noise about? Was somebody fighting?” Then a very delicate, smart, soft-spoken student who sat on the front row in my classroom, came in wailing, “They shot him, Ms. Johnson! They shot my brother!”
Incredulously and stupidly, I asked her why was she at school and she gave me the reality answer at that time: “I didn’t have no place else to go. My mama’s at work!” I ask you, can the children of today say that? Do they feel safe in their schools from gun violence? They are now coming to school in fear of a classmate or former classmate gunning them down. If you have a gun, you’ll use a gun. So why can students under 18 get guns? Amass arsenals?
The whole school shut down. We were asked to keep our students in the homerooms until further notice. Via the PA system, we sent a lot of the children to the counselors in groups and we, the teachers, acted as counselors ourselves. I didn’t know what to say. I asked God to help me to understand this craziness. I realize now, that because of my own upbringing, there was a certain shell I had placed around myself to keep from becoming engulfed in grief and sadness which would have made me inoperable in this situation. However, the outer hardness did not keep me from hurting. I saw the pain, uncertainty and fear in the eyes of these young people, and I blinked back tears as I gently talked to them and prayed with them. I didn’t care what the school system’s policies were concerning religion. I had to put God in it. I thought, you (meaning the government of the USA) allowed Madelyn O’Hare to single-handedly take God out of the schools and all types of dysfunctions walked in. (Check the U.S. Government’s own studies, before and after the deed was done, and judge for yourself. ) I reiterate what my neighbor told me: If you have a gun you will use a gun.
Another fear of no safety in schools because of gun violence occurred when the D.C. Sniper was on a rampage with his teenage accomplice, terrorizing people in the Washington Metropolitan Area. We became especially afraid when the Sniper shot a child in the morning as he walked up to a middle school in Bowie, Maryland. Fortunately, the child lived, but it so happened that that he had been a student in our school just the year before and still had friends at our school. All schools in the area were placed on lockdown, and at my school we could not even leave the building for a short lunch. We were literally locked in until it was time to go home.
To bring this experience with gun tragedy closer to the present, there are three incidents that have helped me to re-sensitize as an adult. The first incident happened a few years ago. The son of a long-time family friend was shot seventeen times at a club in downtown D.C. Some believe the true targets were friends of his and the sad thing is that before the perpetrators reached their destination, they stopped off in suburban Maryland and executed two relatives of the friends before delivering the carnage in D.C. I knew the victim before he was born. He was an aspiring rapper at the club preparing to perform. The second incident happened a few years later, again in the Washington, D.C. area. A man pulled his car over to change his baby’s diaper. A drive-by shooter riddled the car with bullets and both baby and father were killed. I did not know the victims or the shooters, but the news punctured my soul as if I knew them. I am a mother and a grandmother. I have been a young parent changing my baby’s diaper in my car.
The third is a conglomeration of recent school shootings that have happened at elementary, middle and high schools, specifically Sandy Hook where those innocent babies were killed by a mentally disturbed student whose mother took him to practice at a gun range; I cried as I thought of my own grandchildren that attend elementary and middle school. After the Florida school shootings when a mother of a murdered teen-aged daughter screamed into national TV, begging our government and society to “DO SOMETHING!” I felt that woman’s pain. And yes, our church re-played this tape in each service and again my tears flowed. I have a grandson in high school.
I have partially answered the question of how many people I personally know have been shot and/or killed. They weren’t just the victims I read about in the newspapers. I interacted with these people. I no longer wish to count them. There are more. Counting hurts. There are many mothers, fathers, relatives, educators and students whom I know that have had these same experiences. We talk about it, but when it happens to us, we clam up. Often we go into war-time mode. Thus far, I have not had a gun violence incident to happen to my immediate family, but it has touched distant relatives. And many years ago as a young women, it almost touched me.
I was living in an apartment building in the Northwest Corridor of D.C. and there had been rumors of attacks on the stairwells of that building. I liked climbing stairs as exercise to my 8th floor apartment and besides, the elevators were slow. But with this warning, I started using the elevator again. One afternoon, I was on the elevator when it stopped at the 6th floor and opened. A young thin man was standing there. He started to get on, but then he stepped back. Something told me to get off the elevator. I was going to get off on the next floor down, and there he was getting on. He stood behind me as the doors closed and before I knew it, he grabbed my neck and put a gun to my head telling me to give him my pocketbook. I was glad to give it to him. All I had in it was $12. He told me if I made any funny moves he’d blow my head off. Then we came down to the next floor and he marched me off the elevator toward the stairwell and that’s when I knew I had to go into survival mode. I asked him where was he taking me. I told him, “You got my pocketbook, so what else do you want?” That’s when he repeated in a menacing voice, “Keep walking or I’ll blow you f—ing brains out.”
Tragedies like the recent Florida high school shooting that finally brought a social and political outcry, will continue if we don’t shake our desensitization in order to keep guns from the unstable hands of angry, emotionally disturbed children and adults who commit mass murder, suicide or both. We need to be re-sensitized to the problems that promote this behavior because it seems the availability of guns is fast becoming the “final solution” for seriously troubled people. The NRA could care less about the Sandy Hook tragedy and other school gun-tragedies and grossly ignored the devastation of families and sometimes whole communities. But the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Broward County Florida where 14 students and 3 staff members, killed and 14 others were wounded, would not let it go. They would not be ignored. They stood for something, boldly and bravely. As a result of their protests, they helped change the Florida gun laws in March 2018 to includes raising the minimum age for purchasing rifles from 18 to 21, enforcing waiting periods and background checks, banning bump stocks, and keeping proven violent or mentally ill persons from purchasing firearms. I’m sorry my generation is so cowardly, including myself. I’ve been a protestor and a marcher for much of the first half of my life. My excuse is that I’m tired. But I can still write and still vote, can’t I?
Guns. They are everywhere. Your proclivity to fear or anger, the company you keep, and your geographical and cultural pre-disposition as to how you view and use guns are facts to consider when legislating gun laws. In mid-western townships such as Carbondale, Illinois where one of my brothers lives, owning a gun is a natural thing: you hunt with them, you collect them, and you use them for protection from not just people but wild animals. In the Mid-West you also learn how to use a gun very early. Conversely, in the inner cities of places like Chicago, Washington, D.C., Baltimore and New York, the prevailing atmosphere of gang violence, drug wars and abject poverty pre-condition young people to jump into survival modes to become aggressors, enforcers, protectors, show-offs or those who literally fear for their lives.
In this era of Trumpism, the horrific suggestion after the Florida incident was to include in the gun laws the arming or “training” of teachers with guns. Have you lost your minds? I know when I was teaching, there were certain student and teacher personalities that would have come toting guns like the OK Corral, and would have had a shoot-out every day and bragged about it.
I still agree with the wisdom of an older neighbor: “If you have a gun you will use a gun,” for good or for evil. We need to legislate against the evil.