As Child’s World America reflects upon the events that took place at Sandy Hook four years ago, it is vital to recognize that childhood gun violence continues to occur throughout the nation. Dr. Marano exposes the varied experiences children and youths face in Camden, New Jersey, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. —Cyndi Maurer, PhD (editor)
On a Saturday morning in August, a white carriage drawn by two white horses makes its way through the streets of Camden, its top-hatted driver bearing a solemn expression. Inside the carriage is the body of 8-year-old Gabrielle Hill-Carter, struck in the head by a stray bullet as she played across from her home several days before.
Gabby, as she was known, was but one of the recent child victims of gun violence in our area. In the poor neighborhoods of Camden and Philadelphia, adults have a great deal of experience planning funerals for children who were shot while playing outside their own homes. Often, as in Gabby’s case, the families need help from friends, neighbors, and strangers to pay for the burials.
The phenomenon of innocent children killed by stray bullets in their own urban neighborhoods is not a new one, as Charles Fuller’s 1980 play Zooman and the Sign attests. Fuller portrayed the plight of a fictional Philadelphia family whose young daughter was shot as she played on her front porch. In this drama, the child’s grieving father posts a sign challenging his neighbors to identify the anonymous shooter. Through this plot device, Fuller was able to explore the child’s violent death from the perspectives of her family, the neighbors, and the young killer, nicknamed Zooman, who repeatedly confronts the sign while traversing his neighborhood. Thirty-six years later, the same tragedy continues to play out in real life, over and over again.
But what does it feel like to be a child or youth growing up amid the sights and sounds of gun violence in Pennsylvania or New Jersey? I had the opportunity to explore this question while talking with teenage boys from both sides of the river. Here are a few of their experiences.
A 9-year-old boy gets on the elevator in his apartment building one morning to go to school. As the elevator descends, it stops at another floor, and when the door opens, there is an adolescent pointing a gun in his face. Because the 9-year-old has seen bullet holes in the entryway of his building, he knows the gun is not likely to be a toy.
A 12-year-old boy stands in front of his house with his shoulder pads and helmet, waiting for the bus to take him to football practice. A car comes down the street, its occupants spraying the block with gunfire. The boy runs for cover.
A 14-year-old boy is walking home from school with his cousin. A car comes around the corner, and a man on foot is chasing the car, firing two guns as he runs. The boy yells to his cousin to run.
Another youth hears a noise that he suspects is not a firecracker and walks up the block to find his friend shot dead on the sidewalk.
Yet another boy lies awake at night hearing the sound of gunshots outside. He thinks, “Who am I losing now? What friend? What relative? What enemy am I losing?” These are not idle thoughts, as he has already lost family members and peers to gun violence.
Each of these boys knows, in a very immediate way that most of us do not, that each moment of his life could be his last. These boys have seen that gun violence in their neighborhoods can take them or one of their family members at any time, even when they have no involvement whatsoever in the conflict.
Many parents are afraid to let their children play outside, even right in front of the house, and the arrangement of household furniture can likewise reflect the family’s vulnerability. In some areas, cribs must be placed away from exterior walls because of the risk that bullets from outside may penetrate. Again, the boys with whom I spoke describe conditions that are not new, and their perspectives show why the title of Alex Kotlowitz’s 1992 account of life in a Chicago housing project, There Are No Children Here, remains an apt comment on the nature of childhood in similar neighborhoods throughout the country.
As the white carriage conveyed Gabby’s body to the cemetery, many tears were shed. But the experience of Gabby, her parents, and her family is shared by many others. Moreover, the shootings of innocent children caught in the crossfire on urban streets represent but a small segment of the gun deaths of children in America. With eight children or teens killed by guns each day in the United States, it is clear that families in suburban and rural communities are also devastated by gun violence, whether an individual accident or a mass shooting at a school. Available figures show that in the last ten years, at least 1,134 children aged 17 and under were unintentionally killed by firearms, including at least 46 children in Pennsylvania. Approximately 10,000 children are injured or killed by guns each year. In addition to accidental shootings, suicides and homicides using firearms end the lives of many young people.
While there are multiple facets to this public health crisis, it is important to note that many injuries and deaths of young people are preventable and that responsible gun storage, which includes storing guns locked, unloaded, and separately from ammunition, can help to prevent theft as well as shootings that occur when children are able to access guns. Programs such as Be SMART for Kids work to share knowledge that can reduce the number of child gun deaths. Access to such programs may help to prevent the loss of young lives and the heartbroken families they leave behind.
Be SMART for Kids. http://besmartforkids.org
“Funeral Held for 8-Year-Old Girl Shot and Killed in Camden.” Published September 3, 2016, downloaded October 13, 2016: http://www.nbcphiladelphia.com/news/local/Funeral-Camden-Girl-Shooting-Death-New-Jersey–392252821.html
Fuller, Charles. 1979. Zooman and the Sign. New York: Nelson Doubleday.
Kotlowitz, Alex. 1991. There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing up in the Other America. New York: Anchor Books.
Marano, Diane. 2015. Juvenile Offenders and Guns: Voices Behind Gun Violence. London: Palgrave Macmillan.