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Published in Print: September 23, 1998, as In the Hands of Children

In the Hands of Children

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There is no one clear answer to why children kill. But after the string of multiple school shootings last year, many are blaming easy access to firearms.

Savannah, Ga.

The gun that Aron Gilliam used to punch a bullet into Jason Kelly on the steps of Beach High School on Dec. 8, 1993, was cheap and easy to buy.

Even the Savannah police say that buying a firearm illegally here is as uncomplicated for a teenager as picking up groceries: You just have to know when the market is open.

Though he'd never even owned or shot a gun before, Gilliam, who was just 16 at the time, knew where to shop. He had often passed by the corner of 33rd and Jefferson and was not blind to the merchandise being exchanged there.

Such easy access to weapons is part of the national debate over why young people commit murder--a conversation that has grown more urgent with last year's spate of multiple killings at schools.

At first glance, the intersection here doesn't seem to stand up to its reputation as one of Savannah's most perilous street corners. The tree-lined junction is just blocks from the posh shops and historic mansions that serve as prime stops on the Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil tour. The best-selling book about a sensational murder case has given Savannah an almost mythic status and draws tourists to the city in droves.

But just two blocks from the stately mansions of Bull Street that are immortalized in the book are the crumbling domiciles of Jefferson Street. Gilliam had heard that it was this street where crack addicts in need of cash often sold a variety of weapons: shotguns, rifles, Uzis, even grenades.

Gilliam also knew that at sunset, the selling shifted into high gear.

As the sky turns pinkish gray, the wide porches of the dilapidated houses become open stalls for crack dealers. At dusk, white police cruisers begin their nightly crawl down the boulevard, and prostitutes stroll down sidewalks that are overgrown with weeds.

One evening in November 1993, Gilliam went there with $20 in his pocket and returned home less than a half hour later with a .32-caliber revolver, purchased, he says, for protection. He would later tell police that he bought it from "a smoker" who needed money for crack.

The lanky teenager claims that two weeks before he bought the gun, he was attacked by 16-year-old Jason Kelly and a group of other boys from Beach High School on his way to play basketball at a local gym.

Gilliam says that during the fight, Kelly used a broken bottle to slash his arm and another boy hit him in the leg with a fence post.

For weeks, Gilliam carried the gun to Richard Arnold Alternative School and stashed it in an alley while he attended classes, retrieving it for his mile-and-a-half walk home. On a nippy December morning, he ran into Kelly again. It was about 7 a.m., and Gilliam was playing pool at Pops, a local hangout across the street from Beach High, about two miles from Richard Arnold Alternative School. Kelly ambled up to the school entrance, but when he saw Gilliam, Kelly ran.

Two of Gilliam's friends chased Kelly down the sidewalk and tackled him a few yards from the school's front entrance. As Kelly scrambled to break free, Gilliam fired.

He said he was aiming for Kelly's leg as retribution for his own injured leg, but the bullet pierced Kelly's abdomen instead. The youth died about a month later in a Savannah hospital.

"I had no intention of killing him," Gilliam says. "I just didn't want him to mess with me."

When Keith Antwone Green transferred to Savannah's Jenkins High School on Jan. 3, 1996, the 15-year-old freshman had a cherubic face and a criminal record.

Less than two months later, he was holding a grudge and a semi-automatic handgun he'd borrowed from a friend.

As Green tells it, a few weeks after he arrived at the school, a 17-year-old football player named Dwayne Cedric Martin started a campaign of harassment, which included verbal threats and physical intimidation.

One day, as Green walked home, Martin and several friends waited for him at a park. As a brawl began, Green remembers, cars of spectators surrounded the park as if for a boxing match. The fight broke up, and Martin told Green that he'd better have his gun at school the next day. Green, who had been convicted of armed robbery at age 13 and had been around guns most of his life, usually took threats seriously.

Green says that to protect himself, he borrowed a .380 semiautomatic pistol from a fellow 9th grader who had snatched it from his stepfather's closet. Then on Feb. 22, with the gun in his backpack, Green sat through a whole day of classes at Jenkins--history, gym, health, and algebra--without seeing Martin.

A 1995 U.S. Department of Education survey found that 12 percent of students knew of another student who carried a gun to school.

But on his way out, Green stumbled into the upperclassman while wading through a crowd of students about to board buses home. Thinking Martin had a gun as well, Green opened fire. The bullet pierced Martin's heart, killing him.

Students who witnessed the shooting said it sounded like a balloon popping.

A dazed Green then went over to his victim, and, he says, kicked him as he lay on the ground to see if he was still alive.

According to police accounts that describe the teenager's behavior as brutal, Green then hit Martin with his pistol so hard that parts of the gun broke off. Afterward, he ran.

"Everything went black," Green recalls. "I can't explain it. I was scared for my life."

Like Aron Gilliam and Keith Green, most students who use guns to commit crimes at school typically acquire them in one of two ways: They borrow or take them from a relative or friend, or they procure them illegally on the street. A smaller number steal the guns by burglarizing houses, cars, or firearms dealers. In some cases, a young person may enlist an adult, a so-called straw purchaser, to obtain the weapon for them.

A 1995 U.S. Department of Education survey found that 12 percent of students knew of another student who carried a gun to school. A 1993 Education Department survey found that 35 percent of students who attend high schools in high-crime areas say they regularly carry a gun.

After the shocking chain of school shootings that claimed 23 lives last school year, educators and politicians all seem to be pointing to the relative ease with which children can get their hands on firearms.

The 11- and 13-year-old boys in Jonesboro, Ark., who have pleaded guilty to hiding behind bushes before picking off their classmates with rifles in March and the 15-year-old Springfield, Ore., student who is accused of killing two fellow students with his parents' .22-caliber rifle in May were hardly the first youngsters accused of slayings at school.

But their tender ages and the comparatively high number of casualties per incident catapulted school safety into the media spotlight.

The past school year's shootings have inspired election-year proposals that range from levying fines on parents who fail to store their weapons properly to imposing the death penalty on preteen killers.

One possible reason that juveniles are committing more gun-related crimes than in the 1970s and 1980s, some gun-control experts argue, is that there now are simply more firearms circulating.

Vol. 18, Issue 7, Pages 34-39

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