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.

In 1996, a survey by the National Opinion Research Center found that 40 percent of Americans reported owning a gun.

Federal statistics show that over the past 20 years, more than 100 million new guns have come into circulation in the United States; nearly half of them are handguns. During the same period, however, the percentage of people reporting having a gun at home has dropped, reflecting the fact that new guns purchases are probably being concentrated among fewer people. In 1996, a survey by the National Opinion Research Center found that 40 percent of Americans reported owning a gun. In 1977, 51 percent said they kept a gun at home.

Gun-control advocates say that number probably is low because it doesn't include the unlicensed firearms that are bought and sold illegally.

With more guns flowing into the marketplace and countless ways for youths to acquire them, erecting effective barriers to keep minors from a potentially deadly weapon is a challenging task.

In Savannah, a coastal city of about 280,000, guns are as ubiquitous as the Spanish moss that drapes from the oak trees lining the streets.

But since the slayings of Jason Kelly and Dwayne Cedric Martin, the only fatal school shootings that have occurred in the 37,000-student district, local residents have been torn over how to keep guns away from youths without infringing on adults' constitutional--and what many here call "God-given"--right to bear arms.

Americans have long had a healthy respect for firearms. The Founding Fathers recognized the importance of local militia in winning freedom from English rule and guaranteed the right to bear arms in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Current federal law prohibits anyone under 18 from purchasing a rifle or shotgun and bars anyone under 21 from buying a handgun. "In every state, with the exception of recognized activities like hunting or participating in a junior shooting event, virtually everything a juvenile does with a firearm is illegal," said Bill Powers, a spokesman for the National Rifle Association in Fairfax, Va.

The NRA represents 2.8 million gun owners in all 50 states, but guns historically have had an added meaning for Southerners. Especially since Union armies torched Southern towns during the Civil War, guns have been viewed as protection from unwelcome intruders.

Weapons also have served an economic purpose here; rifles and shotguns long enabled many poor, rural communities to literally live off the land.

Federal law prohibits the sale or purchase of all automatic weapons, but three states also control the number of handguns an individual can buy at one time. Maryland, South Carolina, and Virginia all have passed laws that limit a person's handgun purchases to one a month. But in Georgia and several other states, purchasers can buy in bulk. Today, more than 50 percent of Georgians own guns.

At Welsh's Pawn Shop, along a busy thoroughfare on Savannah's south side, owner Neil Cohen is surveying his merchandise. Next to the rows of television sets, electric guitars, video games, and assorted appliances, are a dozen wood-handled shotguns and rifles stacked neatly in a row against the wall. A glass display case below houses the handguns: silver-handled revolvers, a 9mm pistol, and a collection of 3 1/2-inch derringers small enough to fit in a handbag.

The federal Brady Law established a five-day waiting period on handgun purchases to allow gun sellers to run background checks on prospective buyers. But Georgia and 17 other states are permitted to use a computerized system that allows many dealers to screen customers quickly.

With a driver's license and Social Security number, customers here can buy a gun--ranging in price from $50 to $1,200--in a matter of minutes. Unless, of course, you are a convicted felon or underage.

"You'd be stupid to lose your livelihood and business to let a kid go hunting," Cohen says, as a teenager trying to pawn a television set pauses to marvel at the collection of shiny handguns.

Officials at the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, which prosecutes merchandisers who sell to minors, say legal gun dealers aren't a major supplier of firearms to youths.

Most firearms dealers operate within federal and state statutes, says John Ryan, an ATF spokesman. A dealer who sells a firearm to a minor would face five years in prison, he notes.

Because the illicit drug and gun trades are so interconnected, an obvious way to squelch the black market for firearms is to intensify anti-drug enforcement.

But, Cohen says, his seven stores have been broken into six times in 20 years, and every theft has been for firearms. Once stolen, a gun can be sold on the street in less than an hour, local police say.

To help trace stolen weapons sold on the street to the most recent owner, some prosecutors favor registering a gun every time it is legitimately sold.

"I like the idea of registering a firearm once you sell it, so we know who bought the gun, who sold it, and to whom," says Jeffrey Hendrix, an assistant district attorney in Chatham County, which includes Savannah. Hendrix, who prosecuted Keith Green, says he prosecuted 89 juveniles on weapons charges last year--and 24 of those charges were for juveniles carrying a gun to school.

Law-enforcement officers here and across the nation say that because the illicit drug and gun trades are so interconnected, an obvious way to squelch the black market for firearms is to intensify anti-drug enforcement.

One humid evening last month, two young officers with the Chatham-Savannah Counter-Narcotics Team cruise downtown in their white Oldsmobile Cutlass looking for wrongdoing.

Next to a house they often use for surveillance of drug deals, Officer Brett Tremelling scoops up a dozen small blue bags that once contained crack cocaine from a patch of high grass.

"Anywhere you have crackheads, there's going to be guns," Tremelling says. Last year, Tremelling and his partner seized an average of three guns every time they went out on a drug raid.

Arresting drug dealers and providing treatment for addicts could put a dent in the street trade of firearms, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy says.

While such law-enforcement activities are designed to stop juveniles from buying weapons, many politicians and anti-gun advocates say imposing penalties on parents who fail to store their weapons properly could make it more difficult for children to take guns from relatives.

Though it's too soon to tell whether such local actions have prompted more conscientious practices among gun owners, Jane Barnard is all for it.

"As a responsible parent, you put knives and matches away," says Barnard, whose youngest daughter, Cassie, witnessed the shooting of Martin at Jenkins High School. Barnard is angry that the handgun Keith Green used that day to kill Martin was borrowed from a friend who took it from home. "It's inexcusable not to put a gun in a safe place unless you think someone is going to storm your house and kill someone," Barnard says.

She supports legislation recently introduced in the U.S. Congress that would make parents in every state liable if their child commits a gun-related crime and they have neglected to take certain safety precautions.

Some gun-control advocates argue that certain safety devices can prevent a child from using a weapon taken without a parent's knowledge.

Some gun-control advocates argue that certain safety devices can prevent a child from using a weapon taken without a parent's knowledge. Guns sold with trigger locks can prevent children from using them, they say, and new technology now allows guns to be coded to recognize fingerprints so that the weapon can be discharged only by the owner.

Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening of Maryland, for example, is pledging in his re-election campaign that all handguns sold in the state have such high-tech child safety devices. Gun owners' advocates have rejected the measure as too costly, and a similar measure was defeated in Oregon recently.

Since the Jenkins High shooting, the Savannah-Chatham County school district has adopted an "early detection system" to identify violent youths. Before enrolling, a student's police record is pulled. Any student who has committed one of seven serious felonies--such as armed robbery or rape--is transferred to a special alternative school. Now, district leaders say, if someone with Green's criminal history tried to get into any of their 46 schools, they would know about it.

"We had what I would consider to be a safe school environment" at the time of the incident, said Geri Smith, an interim deputy superintendent. "However, it became apparent that the lower-level disciplinary measures weren't enough in dealing with the small number of students who had a strong conviction record through juvenile court."

Linda Herman, the principal of Windsor Forest High School, has prevented 15 students with violent histories from enrolling this year.

"A parent's dearest possession is in this school, and they are confident I'm going to keep their child safe," says Herman, who is also the local representative for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators. While she applauds the new safety protocol, Herman also acknowledges that short of making her 1,500-student school a fortress, any child could bring in a gun.

For that reason, Herman champions more extreme measures.

"The right to bear arms has gotten out of hand," Herman argues as she darts through a school hallway. If she had her way, all firearms not needed for one's work would be banned.

Still, many gun-rights advocates argue that a prohibition on firearms wouldn't eliminate school shootings because, they say, it's what's on children's minds, not in their hands, that is the problem.

"It's important that we as a nation try to get a handle on these [school shooting] tragedies to head off future ones," Powers, the NRA spokesman, says. "But you can ban all the firearms you want, and you're still going to have troubled kids."

Mental-health experts familiar with the statistics say that children are far more troubled and far more apt to use violence to solve problems than they were a decade or two ago.

Kevin Dwyer, the president-elect of the National Association of School Psychologists, says there's been a dramatic increase in the homicide and suicide rates in children in the past 30 years.

"Kids are feeling more alienated and depressed than in the 1970s, and there's a lack of trust of adults to seek help," he says.

The fact that half of all marriages in the United States end in divorce and that most households have two working parents who may have less time to spend with their children are two possible explanations for the greater number of troubled young people, he suggests.

But Dwyer also says that the fast-paced, media-saturated society of the 1980s and 1990s fosters violence because it makes children more impulsive. "Media, video games, and music all tell kids that the way to solve interpersonal problems is through violence," he says, citing a recent California study that showed that in 86 percent of television movies, the characters resorted to force to solve disputes. "In the '70s, kids used to fight with their fists; now, when kids have arguments, one of them gets home and gets his Uzi."

James Gordon, a parent in Savannah, agrees. Gordon's son, now 20, was with Martin three days before he was killed. Gordon believes that young people desensitized to violence should be given a reality check.

"You can ban all the firearms you want, and you're still going to have troubled kids."

Bill Powers,
spokesman,
National Rifle Association

"We should educate children on what guns really do. Schools should show kids dead bodies" in the morgue, he says.

Whatever is done, whether it's scare tactics, anger management, or conflict-resolution classes, the lessons should begin as early as possible, says Hendrix, the Chatham County assistant district attorney.

On the wall of Hendrix's office hangs a dead rat in a heat-sealed bag encased in glass. Hendrix once prosecuted a teenager who made his victim take a bite out of the rat, and the decomposed rodent is a visual reminder to Hendrix of the bad things some children will do.

"With at-risk kids, you have to get to them early. ... It's easier to change a 4- or 5-year-old than a 15- or 16-year-old," he says.

Sitting in the steel-caged visitors' area at the Valdosta State Prison, Aron Gilliam says he prays every night that something could have prevented him from pulling the trigger five years ago.

Now more philosophical than hot-headed, Gilliam swears that if he'd talked to someone about his anger and feelings of revenge, he wouldn't be serving a life sentence for murder.

"If my mother knew I had a gun, she would have wrung my neck," he says. Classes where children can learn how to resolve conflicts peacefully are the best way to lower the rate of juvenile violence, he says. After-school activities should also be expanded to give young people a place to go while their parents are working, he suggests.

If ever released on parole, Gilliam says he wants to be a landscaper. Peering through the prison's glass at the green grass, he says there's nothing like confinement to make you want to enjoy the great outdoors. He'd also like to work with children someday. "I want to do something positive to keep kids from going through this," says Gilliam, the electric door clicking shut behind him. "This is no place for them."

Keith Green has grown an inch or so in the year and a half he's been incarcerated at Lee Arrendale State Prison, but the 18-year-old still has the face of a child.

Having earned his General Educational Development diploma in jail, Green says he spends a good portion of his days going to Bible study and repenting for the suffering he caused Martin's family. "He didn't deserve to die. That wasn't my intention," Green says, his feet tapping the prison floor.

While he doesn't have a prescription for preventing other teenagers from using guns to commit violence, he does believe that early exposure to violence can anesthetize people to brutality.

In the low-income housing project where he grew up in Savannah, guns were playthings, Green says.

"You'd hear gunfire every night. On the Fourth of July, you didn't know whether it was a firecracker or a gunshot," he says.

Green learned early to view firearms not as a tool for hunting game but as a powerful instrument for protection in a hostile environment.

Having peers who encouraged violence rather than squelch it didn't help either, he says. If his friend hadn't let him borrow a gun, he doubts he'd be living behind brick walls and curls of barbed wire in Alto, Ga. "I wish I'd chosen a better way," says the teenager, who won't be eligible for parole until 2011. "I'd give everything but my soul to have my freedom back."

Vol. 18, Issue 07, Pages 34-39

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