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Loaded Question 

Local high school seniors grapple with the question: Why do kids carry guns?

When the police arrived, the teenager had been in the middle of a fight with another kid. During a frisk, officers found -- tucked into his pants -- a gun with bullets in the chamber.

The Orleans Parish Juvenile Court judge hears about the boy's current charges, and is visibly upset. He looks at the kid, who has been through his courtroom before. "Where did the gun came from?" he asks.

"I found it in an alley," says the young man.

The judge looks chagrined. "[A few years ago] kids would say, 'I found the gun under a bush' like there's a gun bush somewhere," he explains from the bench. But lately, kids seem to be finding guns in alleys. Has the mythical bush disappeared, he muses, only to be replaced by an alley somewhere, strewn with guns just for the taking?

To the judge's mind, this teenager's transgression -- "a fight with a loaded gun in your waistband" -- is one step too close to tragedy. The man in the black robe puts up his right hand and extends his index finger. "That trigger finger," he says, bending the finger like a gun being discharged, "all it takes is a little squeeze -- less than you think. There have been kids sitting in your chair who are dead because they didn't believe a word I just said."

Within the past few months alone, he reports, he's lost three kids who had appeared before him in this very courtroom.

Nationwide, a teenager is more likely to die of a gunshot wound than from all natural causes or disease. In New Orleans, about nine out of 10 murders are committed with firearms, most of them aimed at this city's young black men.

In mid-2001, the Louisiana Office of Public Health (OPH) studied Orleans Parish murder victims under 25. More than two-thirds were between 18 and 22 years old. Eighty-eight percent of the victims were black men.

Most victims come from this city's poorest neighborhoods. Nationwide, the biggest predictor of homicide -- more than race or age -- is socioeconomic status. The Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence concluded that murder rates are highest "in urban areas characterized by low socioeconomic status, high population density, poor housing, and high unemployment."

Dr. Kennan Buechter is chief of surgery and director of the trauma program at Charity Hospital, where -- in accordance with the parish-wide trauma system -- all local gunshot victims are sent. "In the past six, nine months, [gun violence] is on the rise again, " says Buechter, who has been at Charity since 1982. "Hopefully we won't get as high as we were in the early 1990s. But it definitely has hit its trough and is trending upwards once again."

Buechter is referring to a nationwide surge in violence that hit its peak here in New Orleans in 1994. One of the most well-accepted theories is that the increase in youth homicides during the late 1980s and early 1990s resulted from an increase in the availability of guns.

Many guns still remain in young hands. Some studies -- like one cited in a recent Department of Justice report -- have found that nearly a quarter of all inner-city high school students had, in the previous 30-day period, carried a weapon outside the home. Others discovered that a third of high-school-age males in high-risk neighborhoods had carried a concealed gun within a month's time.

Kids who live in the heart of New Orleans -- like those who attend Joseph S. Clark Senior High, near the Calliope housing project -- live with guns in their midst every day. On a recent Thursday morning, a senior English class shared their opinions about guns and whether it's OK to carry them.

It's mid-way through the class, and a student named Walter has had his right hand raised for awhile now. He'd like to interrupt a trio -- three guys -- who currently are riffing about how they need to be able to protect themselves, especially at night. Carrying a concealed weapon, they argue, should be allowed for anyone who's 18, maybe even 16 (instead of Louisiana's current legal age of 21).

Walter finally puts down his hand and jumps into the discussion. "Boy, you stupid," he says to his classmates, shaking his head. For his part, he would never carry a gun. The discussion gets more and more spirited as other classmates chime in. Just before the bell rings, teacher Denise Douglas assigns them an essay on the topic, due the following week.

In his paper, another student, Khary, takes on the question by writing a rap: "Why do people pack guns is the question that has been given/ What do you think that makes you a bigger person to stop another from living?"

A few kids write that gun-carrying is about status. "Only one thing I know about guns," says one. "They have big guns, small guns, heavy guns. Teens carry them to show off what kind of gun they have or how big it is. Others just want to stunt or show off."

A student named Bruce sees more serious motivations. "Teens," he writes, "carry guns to keep away people who like to mess with them, who always bully them or make them fear that their life is in a lot of danger."

Larry concurs: "Got a boot in your mouth. So you got a gun/ See them boys you got into it with/ Now you wanna see these cats run."

These observations jibe with what numerous researchers have found nationwide -- some juveniles carry guns for status, but most say that they arm themselves for protection. "They think they need it for their own security," says Dr. Roy Farrell, the Seattle-based president of Physicians for Social Responsibility, a nationwide group of doctors who address social problems, including gun violence. "Bullying is a major problem. Some kids feel like they have to bring a gun to school to deal with a threat they feel."

Sometimes the threat can be as real as gunfire outside the front door. In her essay, Gitan says that she knows people who have been at both ends of the gun. "As the years pass by," the teen writes, "I see a lot of my peers around my house getting killed from a gun or getting charged with murder. It is sad to see one of your friends getting locked up or on the ground with blood leaking out of their body."

A violent environment brings out even more weapons. According to recent research, one result of witnessing and experiencing violence is an increased rate of high-risk behaviors -- like carrying knives and guns. One sociologist compares high rates of gun possession to a contagious disease that spreads quickly from one person to another.

One Clark student says that, after a series of rapes on her block, her daddy bought her a gun. Her classmates have no quarrel with that idea. "I think," writes Jauvon, "that it's OK to hold a gun, but only if you hold it for a good reason. Like for instance if your mother has to catch the bus late at night from work, I feel she should have a little weapon in her purse, because they do have strangers and crazy people in this world."

The "little weapon" won't necessarily be a gun if it's in a girl's purse, however. Statistically, girls rarely own or use guns. "I'm a girl myself," writes Lela. "I have a knife of my own, but I don't carry it around. I also have a box cutter, which I may carry in my purse for security for when I go out into the streets. You need to do what's best for you to live and see another day."

Ernest wouldn't carry a gun illegally -- he doesn't want to get nabbed on a weapon charge. But he was one of the young men arguing that guns should be legal for older teens. "My job gets out late," he explains in his essay, "and when I get off from work from [a prominent local restaurant] at 2:30, 1:30, or 2 a.m., I need some protection for myself. In the city of New Orleans, they like to do crazy things like robbing, stealing, being in the [drug] game, and killing for something crazy."

The most common motives for local murders of young adults, according to OPH research, are arguments, retaliation and drugs. In fact, when you discuss causes of violence, drugs often come up, whether you're talking with high-school seniors, researchers or law-enforcement officials. Just ask Special Agent Austin Banks, who works in New Orleans for the federal bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). "Crack cocaine hit the streets of New Orleans in the late 1980s," he notes, "and it was controlled by a younger generation than earlier drugs, like heroin, which were sold by older guys who tried to keep the young kids away from it." The city's homicide count nearly doubled in seven years, from 204 in 1987 to 421 in 1994.

Banks explains that gangs in New Orleans -- like the Seventh Ward Soldiers and the recently prosecuted Tenth Ward Posse -- are made up of young men who grew up together. That's different than what you find in gangs like the Bloods and the Crips in other cities, he says, and -- as a result -- the violence is also different. Here, it's more about profit from drug dealing than about protecting turf for turf's sake. The economic downturns and high unemployment of the late 1980s coincided with the emergence of "entrepreneurial" gangs like these, filled with young men whose chances for mainstream employment were slim.

As Andrew writes in his essay, there always are young men entering "the game": "Most teens, starting at the age of 16 on up, sell drugs. And teens who sell drugs carry guns and knives."

Students are matter-of-fact about this association. Tamyra says that she wouldn't carry a gun because she has a bad temper. "But I can see why some people do carry guns," she adds, gesturing toward a nearby kid. "He sells drugs, so he needs a gun to protect himself."

The kid explains that he mainly uses his weapon to intimidate the younger kids who have guns -- because they're much more unpredictable than older kids.

Classmate Keyonna laments how easy it is to get a gun, even if you are a younger kid. Special Agent Banks agrees. "Statistics show," he says, "that most kids can get their hands on a gun in three minutes."

The ATF has for several years traced the guns confiscated by the New Orleans Police Department. Most, says Banks, are purchased legally in the New Orleans area. Some are taken through burglaries, but most are grabbed from parents, uncles, brothers and family friends who have legal papers on those weapons.

Only a generation ago, things were different. Or so Walter found when he wrote his essay. "I interviewed a few people," he writes, "mostly grownups. One older gentlemen said, in his own words, 'Back in my day, you would probably cry if you saw a friend with a gun.'"

Farrell elaborates. "A kid carrying a gun on the street was almost unheard of back in the 1960s and '70s," he says. Parents and relatives and friends have always owned firearms, he emphasizes, and the guns were always readily available, since 50 percent of gun owners do not lock up their firearms. "But in the last 25 years, there's been a change in youth culture," he concludes. "Kids today are now taking advantage of the opportunity to get a hold of a gun."

And as Khary writes, some kids want those guns at the ready: "Some people own guns to protect their self, their family and wealth/ But their weapon's on the shelf/ Others carry guns because in their life they have been doing wrong/ And they don't sleep comfortable unless the gun is in their palm."

Khary changed his mind about guns. He had originally been among the trio of young men arguing that guns should be legalized for kids their age. He didn't feel that way once he wrote his essay, because one of his people had been shot over the weekend and was in intensive care.

Nationwide, it's estimated that for every gun death there are three nonfatal firearm injuries. In several cities, gun violence has now surpassed car accidents and sports as the No. 1 cause of spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries.

Locally, Charity Hospital keeps track of firearm injuries but hasn't compiled the data as a report since 1994-95, when Buechter and others authored the study Firearm Injury in Orleans Parish: A 24-Month Perspective. At the time, Charity was seeing more than two gunshot victims a day.

Over those two years, local gun victims racked up initial hospital bills totaling more than $11 million. Only 2 percent of them had third-party insurance.

This situation is not unique to New Orleans. Because of staggering costs and the high proportion of uninsured victims, public hospitals in other cities have cited gun violence as a major factor for closings or cutbacks.

The Firearm Injury report also delineated the procedures required for gunshot victims and their resulting diagnoses. It found that more than half of the patients with non-fatal injuries underwent immediate surgeries, an average of 2.6 procedures per patient. They also required lots of blood -- for fatal injuries, as much as 8.9 units of blood per person, about a third of a human body's blood. Finally, reported the authors, 10 percent of the patients had a permanent disability, mostly because of shots to the head or spinal cord.

Attend most any second-line parade or walk down many residential streets of New Orleans, and you're likely to see young men in wheelchairs. To give a numerical sense of how common these injuries are, consider that, for every five murders committed in 1994-95, there was one person rendered disabled by a gunshot wound.

To kids, the threat of disability is worse than the threat of dying, says Farrell. He's discovered this over the past five years during trips to eighth-grade public school classrooms in Seattle, as part of a program called Cops and Docs. "A physician and a police officer go to the schools," Farrell explains, "and present actual slides of cases from trauma centers, people who've been shot. We tell them what the story was behind how they got shot and what the medical and legal consequences were for the people who were shot, who left the gun available, or pulled the trigger."

The program's goals are to spur students to report guns when they see them and to make kids think twice about carrying a gun or hanging out with kids who do carry. "Because if you get into an argument," says Farrell, "you're much more likely to be shot if you have a gun. Carrying a gun really makes you a target, to a significant degree. Like we tell the kids, 'Lead attracts lead.'"

CORRECTION: The composer Richard Strauss' name was cited incorrectly in last week's Tribute to the Classical Arts Awards nominees announcement. Gambit Weekly regrets the error.

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