Live by the Gun
An NFL murder-suicide sparks talk about gun control. Here’s how men in the gun-riddled Bronx think the problem should be solved.
As children, Shane Allen, Billy “B.O.” Logan and Richard Morales used to play Manhunter, Blackout and other variations of tag in the Bronxdale Houses projects. It was the late 80s, the height of the crack epidemic, and the Soundview section of the Bronx was especially hard hit. Men smoked weed and drug dealers staked out their territories in urine-stained lobbies. Crack vials littered the ground, and addicts went door to door, selling stolen lotion, talcum powder and other goods to earn enough for a hit. Even inside the individual apartments, where the decent families lived, the depravity of the outside world seeped in, as gunshots often pierced the constant hum of the days and nights.
The object of the games the boys played was to run fast enough to escape the person who was “it”. They were games, the same that children play all over the world, but for boys growing up in the Bronx, they were more.
“All those games, running from each other, that was like training for running from the cops later on in life,” says Allen, “because when we started selling drugs, that’s what we were doing.”
With the drug dealing as teens came an introduction to guns, and with guns came violence, and sometimes death.
“The only way to govern is by being ruthless,” says Allen, 31. “That’s how the guns became involved—people shooting each other because this is my corner where I sell at, this is where I live at, and you shouldn’t be here.”
This past weekend's shooting death of Kasandra Perkins by boyfriend, Kansas City Chiefs lineman Jovan Belcher, before he took his own life, has raised the issue of gun violence and gun control to the national consciousness yet again. Pundits are expounding on the issue while politicians skirt around it. There is a collective conversation being had mainly by those whose only knowledge of gun violence is based on what they’ve studied or read, and the images they’ve seen on the evening news or in movies.
But for people like Allen, Morales and Logan, gun violence was a part of everyday life. Morales, 32, remembers the first murder he ever witnessed, when he was just 14, and a man bled to death right in front of him. Allen has been shot in the shoulder, gone to prison for gun possession, and has lost at least a dozen friends to gun violence. The last friend died in August; the first, Logan, was killed in 2006, when he was just 22-years-old.
Some experts say that gun bans do work. In 1976, the District of Columbia passed a law that banned the purchase, sale, transfer or possession of guns by civilians. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that from 1968 to 1987, homicides by firearm in Washington, D.C., fell by 25 percent. There was no increase in homicide by other methods, as would be expected if people were intent on murder, and had to find other means to commit it, and there was no similar decrease in homicide rates in nearby metropolitan neighborhoods in Maryland and Virginia.
But the real issue, Allen and Morales say, is not the guns.
Interestingly, their solutions for lessening gun violence in some way mirror Mitt Romney’s. Romney was lambasted during the presidential campaign when he told NBC News’ Brian Williams:
“We can sometimes hope that just changing a law will make all bad things go away. It won’t. Changing the heart of the American people may well be what’s essential, to improve the lots of the American people.”
“When you get involved with guns, it’s too late,” says Allen. “This is about something else. It’s about placing different goals and different drives in people. You have to go to urban neighborhoods, and kind of make it cool to not kill people.”
We live in a culture where killing is cool. Studies show that the typical American child will view more than 200,000 acts of violence on television, including more than 16,000 murders, before age 18.
Children in poor, urban environments are often exposed to even more violence, and not just on television.
In neighborhoods such as these, where residents also feel disconnected from the rest of society, due to poverty, people will often quickly resort to violence, because it’s the only means they have to solve interpersonal problems.
“People living in these poor communities often feel themselves to be on their own in various ways, not just with respect to the economy, but also with respect to things like police protection,” says Elijah Anderson, professor of sociology at Yale University and author of Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City. “In these communities, civil law erodes and street justice picks up the flack.”
The code of the street dictates that men must command respect by showing “nerve,” says Anderson—by stealing from others, or pulling a trigger. This respect, or street credibility, is the most important thing men have, because it demonstrates strength, and without it, they and their loved ones are vulnerable to violence from others.
“The goal of the game is to get rich or die trying. It’s what [rapper] 50 [cent] was talking about,” says Marc Washington, 37, who was a drug dealer in South Jamaica, Queens, in the 1990s. “That’s a mantra that’s chewed on for breakfast. When you have a disagreement and someone is trying to kill you, no one is going to break that up, and if you go to the police, that mere fact means you can never walk the streets again. It’s better to deal with this man to man, one on one.”
Many boys equate manhood with violence. As a child, Allen says he looked up to the drug dealers because they always had money and girls, and they settled their disagreements with guns.
Despite his mother’s efforts to keep him off the streets, Allen started dealing marijuana, crack and heroin at 15, in order to get money to buy the latest sneakers and jackets. He never owned a gun, but borrowed guns from friends when he needed them.
Shooting and getting shot at was just a normal part of life on the streets, and Allen says that, back then, he felt no remorse about shooting at people, because they had likely done something to deserve it. By the time he became an adult, he had seen so many people get shot that he became immune to the violence.
“By witnessing one [shooting], it might shock you, but you start seeing it all the time and it’s nothing,” says Allen. “I got shot in the shoulder, and every time after that, it got easier and easier. So getting shot at once, twice, three times, it wasn’t really anything. That is how people end up dead. You get to the point where you are not fearing what you are supposed to fear.”
It wasn’t until his best friend Logan was murdered on a Sunday in the spring of 2006, at 2 a.m., on the corner of Watson and Strasser streets, that Allen stopped to reflect.
“When B.O. (Logan) passed away, a part of me died,” says Allen. “I never took a loss until him, as far as the streets. And that’s when I knew, I just be dishing out the negative, thinking it’s never gonna come back, and when it did come back, it really hurt, and I felt the pain that I was causing other people.”
Still, Allen’s immediate reaction was to borrow a gun to search for Logan’s killer. He had no leads; Logan had a lot of enemies, including the police.
On August 15, 2006, at about 1 a.m., Allen was caught with the gun when he and a friend were hanging out on a corner, and police stopped and frisked them — “The crime was it was late, and we were two black guys out here,” Allen says.
He was sent to Rikers Island for 8 months, and it was then that Allen decided to change his life. It wasn’t just being imprisoned — he had spent shorter periods of time in prison, on drug-related charges, and also says: “Growing up in the Bronx is like a big prison, it’s just got a lot more yard time.”
It was fear that caused Allen to change. At the time, his mother had breast cancer, and he was afraid she would pass away while he was in prison. Allen also had two young daughters, and he knew that if he continued to live as he was living, he would end up dead, leaving them with no one to protect them.
Allen was released in April 2007. He enrolled in the Friends of Island Academy program, which is designed to break the cycle of incarceration by providing opportunities for young people.
“Working with Friends helped me unlearn stuff,” he says.
Allen also found a mentor in Marc Washington, who works at Friends of Island Academy, and who, after his own jail sentence on felony drug charges, was able to earn a college degree through involvement in the Friends program. Allen says he realized that if Washington could earn a degree, get a job, and get married, “like normal people,” he could too.
Allen ultimately found a job in construction, working with concrete, and that job has given him a sense of peace and stability that he lacked when he was involved in street life.
Anderson says that if people in poor, inner city communities had access to meaningful work, it would end some of the violence. The problem, he says, is that inadequate education leaves people qualified for a just a limited number of jobs, and many of these jobs are being shipped overseas.
“Jobs promise mobility, to allow people to have a better shot at having something more,” says Anderson. “Nothing kills hope like the lack of a job, and the problem really has to do with hope. Hope for the future is very important to ending the violence. The root cause isn’t guns, the root cause has to do with hope.”
Allen also speaks of hope, and says that children growing up in neighborhoods like Soundview need access to better education, so that they will have better opportunities, and need to be raised with a stronger sense of self.
“Deep down inside, everybody knows what is good, but they are worried about how other people will look at them, instead of how they look at themselves,” says Allen.
Allen says that having strong, male role models might have helped steer him in a different direction. His father was a drug addict, so he modeled the behavior of the only strong men he knew—the drug dealers.
It is hard for boys who, due to the absence of one or both parents, are forced to raise themselves, not just because they lack guidance, but because they lack love. Morales says that though he, Allen and Logan grew up together, he had a stable home environment, living with his grandparents and aunt, whereas Logan had no one to really show him affection.
“I loved B.O. dearly, but he was a beast in the streets,” says Morales. “His mother was a drug addict, and she passed away. His uncle was a gangster. Dealing with these kinds of things as a boy, you don’t know how to talk, so you beat someone up or get violent real fast when you have this anger. And you live by the gun, you die by the gun.”
Still, the lessons of the street can be unlearned. It is a long process, and Allen says he spent a few years with one foot in the street, one foot out.
Allen still lives in the Bronx, just blocks from where a 4-year-old boy was shot and killed last summer. The boy was the 60th person killed in the Bronx this year.
The pull of the old life will always be there, but Allen is reminded, in losing friends, in watching Logan’s two sons grow up without a father, that the thrill is, for him at least, no longer worth the risk.
“It excited me just to go fighting and shooting, I feel sound stupid by saying it, but that’s what it was,” says Allen. “To this day, I am still changing. There is still stuff I need to fix about my life. I am not the perfect person. But I am not on the front line anymore.”
Editor's Note: A version of this article originally appeared on Loop21.com on Aug. 6, 2012.