America: Still eating its young

Do they still make water pistols? I’m pretty sure cap guns and air rifles (which I loved when I was a kid) are in the Smithsonian by now, but I was just wondering if you could still get a good water pistol anywhere. …

As you can probably tell, I don’t have kids — or grandkids. If I did I’m sure I’d have a better handle on what you can and can’t find in the toy department. Yeah, well. It is what it is.

I can still remember saving up enough S&H green stamps to buy my first air rifle before I was even 10 years old. I can’t remember how many cap guns I owned, but I do remember the sharp cracking sound they made when fired, and the lingering sulfur smell. I remember the thick rolls of red “caps” that looked like red tape with evenly spaced little black bumps, which contained just enough gun powder to make a small blast as soon as the spring-loaded hammer would slam into them after the trigger was pulled. Sometimes I didn’t feel like being bothered with threading the caps through the guts of the gun, so I would just unroll six or seven inches of caps on the sidewalk in front of my house and hammer the explosive bumps with a rock for the cheap thrill of watching the sparks and hearing the sharp popping sound.

OK, so I was easily amused as a kid. Most of my friends were easily amused too since we didn’t have much of a choice. Toys weren’t that complex back then, and nobody assumed you might be a murderer-in-training if you chased little Johnny around the block with a fake pistol. You were just a kid having fun.

Looks like the party’s over.

Recently I wrote a column about how gun violence is tearing Detroit apart. Last year there were 384 homicides in the city. There were more than 800 shootings that occurred in just the first six months of 2004, and the total for the year topped 1,000.

Since the time when the column appeared nearly a month ago, the Children’s Defense Fund has issued a report entitled “Protect Children Not Guns.” Reading that eight-page report makes it clear that this love affair America has with its guns isn’t restricted to Detroit — although we certainly bear a grossly disproportionate amount of the tragedies related to gun violence.

In short, it seems that far too many of today’s kids aren’t wasting their time screwing around with plastic water pistols or other similar toys because, well, toys are for punks. Why pretend to kill someone when you can kill someone for real? To quote the Ashford and Simpson hit, “ain’t nothin’ like the real thing.” And murder is definitely the real thing.

According to the 2005 report, which draws on data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the most recent nationwide figures available show that “2,867 children and teens died from gunfire in the United States in 2002 — one child about every three hours, nearly eight children every day, 55 children every week.”

Out of that total, 1,830 were homicide victims, 828 committed suicide, and 209 died accidentally or in undetermined circumstances. Furthermore, 1,639 were white, 1,112 were black, 581 were Latino, 64 were Asian or Pacific Islander, and 52 were American Indian or Alaska Native.

When one considers the fact that black people only comprise roughly 12 percent of the American population, it’s pretty shocking that the number of black kids murdered is only 527 fewer than white kids murdered. Just to give you an idea of how far out of whack this is, let’s do a little rough math: If the total number of child deaths related to gunfire was 2,867, and black folks are only 12 percent of the population, then if we multiply 2,867 by 12 percent we ought to get a rough idea of what a more proportional figure for what gun-related deaths in the black youth community ought to be. That figure is 344.04. This is not to say that 344 gun-related deaths among black children would have been acceptable, but it damned sure would have been better than 1,112, don’t you think?

Following along on this same theme, the Defense Fund report contained some other rather alarming statistics:

• Sixty-one percent of the 95,761 children and teens killed by gunfire from 1979 through 2002 were white; 36 percent were black.

• The number of black children and teens killed by gunfire since 1979 is about 10 times the number of black citizens of all ages ever lynched in America.

• Among children and teens, blacks are more likely to be victims of firearm homicide and whites are more likely to commit suicide.

• For 2004 the firearm death rate for black males ages 15 to 19 is almost four times that of white males ages 15 to 19.

• The rate of firearm deaths among children under 15 is far higher in the United States than in 25 other industrialized countries combined.

Furthermore, since 1979 the rate of homicides attributable to firearms increased dramatically from 44 percent to 63 percent in 2002. The flat-out worst year for gun homicides among children — black and white — was 1993, when 2,600 black kids and 2,925 white kids were murdered. The following year, one less black kid was murdered compared to 3,024 white kids.

I suppose if there’s any good news here it’s the apparent drop in gun-related homicides among children by nearly half since 1993. But this still doesn’t change the fact that gun violence among children though down over the last decade, is still far too prevalent, especially in the black community.

I’ve already heard most of the suggestions on how to curb the violence among youth, and I’m sure you have too. Don’t let kids play violent video games. Don’t let kids watch violent movies or TV shows. In addition to these suggestions, the Defense Fund suggests conflict resolution courses and stronger efforts to get the word out to local media publicizing the names and faces of children who have been murdered.

It’s not that these aren’t good ideas, but I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t going to require something more. The reason I say this is simply because of what I see happening right here in Detroit, where everybody except the deaf, dumb and blind already know how much more violent the youth have become — and they’re leaving the city. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about it seriously myself, and not just because of the murder rate. Even the most hardcore Detroiters who have the means to get the hell out are doing just that, which means we are on the way to a city populated mostly by those who are stuck here, not those who want to be here, and that’s a bad position for a city to be in.

It’s kind of like the position you might find yourself in if you were hanging over the edge of a cliff by a thread, and that thread was being held by someone who doesn’t like you that much.

It spells the beginning of the end of a once-great city.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. Send comments to [email protected]
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