High School Massacres Are Just the Tip of the Iceberg Among Youth Gun Deaths

At 11:15 a.m. on Sunday November 24, Cleveland police rushed to the 5500 block of Linton Avenue, where they found sixteen year-old Darnell Jones shot in the neck. Paramedics took him to the MetroHealth Medical Center, where he later died. There was no profile of who he was or wanted to be; no interviews with his parents. Beyond official records there is no further evidence that he was ever on the planet. And so it goes on. Another twenty-four hours and the first of yet another slew of slain children whose stories will not be told and whose passing will provoke no outrage.

Researching and writing this book has made me want to scream. I’ve wanted to scream at Edwin and Brandon that guns are not toys, at Jerry to either take the kids on his trucking run or stay home, at Stanley to quit hanging on the corner, at Gustin to watch who he hangs out with, and at Tyshon’s mother to move. I’ve wanted to scream at journalists and police to treat these deaths as though the lives mattered.

But more than its making me want to scream at anyone in particular, it has mostly made me want to just howl at the moon. A long, doleful, piercing cry for a wealthy country that could and should do better for its youth and children — for my children — but that appears to have settled, legislatively at least, on a pain threshold that is morally unacceptable.

I want to bay toward the heavens, because while kids like those featured in this book keep dying, the political class refuses to do not only everything in its power but anything at all to minimize the risks for the kids who will be shot dead today or tomorrow.

As I explained at the outset, this is not a book about gun control. The challenges facing the people profiled in this book are more thorny and knotted than that. Poverty and inequality foster desperation; segregation is a serious barrier to empathy. The more likely you are to be wealthy or white, the less likely you are to believe that these children could be your children. Statistically that is true, but the fact remains that they are somebody’s children, and those parents grieve like everybody else.

Better education, youth services, jobs that pay a living wage, mental health services, trauma counseling, a fair criminal justice system — in short, more opportunity, less despair — would contribute to the climate where such deaths were less likely.

You can’t legislate for common sense and human decency. Neither poverty nor racism puts a gun in anyone’s hand, let alone tells them to fire it. But they are a starting point for the conditions of alienation, anomie, and ambivalence in which a gun might be used and some gun deaths ignored. People have to take personal responsibility for what they do and live with the consequences. But societies have to take collective responsibility for what they do and live with the consequences, too.

As I argued in the introduction, this is a book about what happens when you don’t have gun control. Americans are no more inherently violent than anybody else. What makes its society more deadly is the widespread availability of firearms. Every country has its problems, unique to its own history and culture. But in no other Western society would this book be possible.

To defend this reality by way of the Second Amendment to the Constitution has about the same relevance as seeking to understand the roots of modern terrorism — either to condemn or to condone it — through readings of the Koran. To base an argument on ancient texts is to effectively abdicate your responsibility to understand the present by offloading it onto those who are now dead. It denies not only the possibility of new interpretations and solutions but the necessity for them.

None of the family members I spoke to raised the Second Amendment one way or the other. Almost all believed guns were too readily available; none believed there was anything that could be done about it. Brilliant community groups, often operating on a shoestring, like Mario’s in Charlotte, exist across the country and campaign tirelessly against gun violence or for commonsense gun legislation, or both. But those who concentrate on protecting “babes” and “angels” from felons and gangsters stand little chance of finding roots in the very communities where the problems are most acute. It would appear that, of all the parents who lost children that day, only Nicole, judging by her later Facebook postings (including a spoof children’s book called The Gun That Went Around Killing Children All By Itself ), seems to be engaged in some kind of advocacy around the issue. But even she clearly finds the broader conversation about gun control too toxic to engage with. Alongside portraits of hundreds of children shot dead since Sandy Hook, which included a photo of Jaiden, she wrote:

Jaiden was one of the hundreds of children under the age of 12 killed by gun violence in the one year after the Sandy Hook massacre….

As the 3rd anniversary approaches for Sandy Hook, there is going to be news coverage, memorials and articles about gun control etc — I don’t want to get into a debate about gun control or violence or mental health problems but what I would like is to ask each of you to take a moment and look at these beautiful gorgeous children and remember them and their families during this holiday season in addition to all those killed at Sandy Hook Elementary.

Otherwise, it’s as though each death took place in helpless, hopeless isolation: a private, discrete tragedy complete unto itself. The broader context of race and poverty was clear to many. But when I told them of other families that had lost children that day, all seemed genuinely shocked that their grief overlapped in real time with that of others. It’s as though they had lost a loved one in a war without any clear purpose, end, or enemy — a war they could do nothing about; a war they long knew existed but hoped by luck, judgment, discipline, and foresight that they might be able to protect their kids from; a war that is generally acknowledged in the abstract but rarely specifically addressed in the concrete. A war that took their children but offered them no allies or community in their grief. A war they knew was taking place elsewhere but experienced alone, as though it were happening only to them — when in fact it was happening to America. Every day.