Guns are a pervasive element in our lives whether we seek them out or not. They creep into music lyrics, find their way into art, and are fixtures of Hollywood blockbusters. Bullets find New Yorkers while they’re on the bus, waiting for a haircut, or just relaxing at a house party. Guns and gun violence are an unavoidable fact of New York life. But for every firearm that is used to commit a crime, there is someone using a gun to hunt for quail or as a monthly stress release at a gun club in Chelsea.
As of February 2015, 69,680 New York State residents are registered gun owners, but gun advocates estimate that the state harbors more than a million assault rifle owners alone. Even in New York and New Jersey, which have some of the toughest laws in the country, more than two-thirds of guns linked to criminal activity in 2014 were traced to out-of-state purchases, federal data shows. Many of these firearms are smuggled up Interstate 95, known as the “Iron Pipeline,” from southern states with lax gun laws. “We’ve seen the human consequence of the iron pipeline,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio. “We’ve lost police officers, we’ve lost parents, we’ve lost children.”
In response, the NYPD has ramped up gun arrests—967 through mid-April, compared with 863 in all of 2015. Seventeen precincts with high rates of shootings have stepped up measures to reduce gun violence. Prosecutors in Brooklyn and Manhattan have cracked down on “straw purchasers,” people who buy weapons on behalf of gun traffickers. And 2014 saw the lowest recorded level of NYPD shooting incidents since records began in 1971.
But that the number of shootings have dipped in recent years does little to weaken the impact of the bullets that are fired, guns that are sold illegally, or lives that are lost. Or to diminish the weight of the guns sitting unfired—in holsters, dresser drawers, and pockets. Or the possibility of a gun that sits in the backs of our minds. Some people love guns; some hate them; many of us in New York are touched by them. Here are some of their stories. – Caroline Spivack
2015: A Year of Gun Violence in NYC
Three Mothers, Three Sons, Three Bullets
Her son was raised to be careful. He went to a party. He never came home
Natasha Christopher remembers everything that happened on the night of June 27, 2012.
She remembers sharing the bedroom with her five-year-old, who was having a nightmare. She remembers her boyfriend waking her up and telling her that her eldest son had been shot. She remembers looking at the clock, its hands pointing to midnight.
That Wednesday night, Christopher’s 14-year-old son, Akeal, took a bullet in the back of his skull on a residential sidewalk in Bushwick. He was taken to Brookdale Hospital, a 20-minute drive away, where Christopher arrived with her two younger sons, Rashawn, ten, and Christopher, five.
She remembers that her relatives stood at one side of the waiting room; Akeal’s father’s family on the other. “Where is my son?” she demanded, staring into sullen faces and downturned eyes. Nobody responded.
Christopher pushed forward, walking past the emergency room doors, and felt her muscles tense at the sight of blood on the floor. The alarms rang “Code Blue,” a signal she didn’t understand.
Then she noticed the drapes in a nearby room swing open, and behind it Akeal lay bleeding on a gurney. A doctor was pumping his chest. A nurse talked about stapling his head. Someone shouted, “Get her out of here!”
Christopher ran back outside and pounded on her son’s father. “What the hell happened to my son?” She screamed.
Then she passed out. more >
One shoe at a time: A mother turns pain into purpose
The call came just after midnight. It woke Elaine Lane, who had fallen asleep on the sofa in front of the TV in her Irvington, N.J. home. She sat up. Groggy. Still half-asleep when she answered the phone.
It was the call every parent fears. Her son had been shot and killed. “It was like the end of the earth,” Lane said. “It was just pure darkness.”
On that day, March 14, 1998, David Lane joined the 3,792 children and teens killed by guns that year, according to the numbers compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was a day that warped Elaine Lane’s world, one that would, eventually, prompt her to dedicate her life to humanizing such numbers.
But that took time. “My drug of choice—because you have to numb the pain—my drug of choice was work, sleep, and television,” she said. “It was just devastating, it was absolutely devastating and I felt like I gotta do something. I don’t want another mother to feel what I felt.”
As she began to peel back the layers of grief, over several years of therapy, Lane started working with organizations with a mission to reduce gun violence. But something was missing that left her unsatisfied. She was dealing with stats, but thinking about people. “We as a society, we talk about the numbers, but we don’t talk about the human being,” she said. “We don’t mention their names. Numbers can’t allow you to feel that a human being’s life has been taken.” more >
An unsolved shooting baffles a mom for decades
Twenty-two years after her son died from a gunshot, Margarita Torres, walks away from the television whenever the clock hits 11:02 p.m., the time Torres’ son last spoke to her. “Ma, it is 11:02, I will be right back,” the 18-year-old said to his mom as he headed out of the apartment on 97th St, between Park Avenue and Madison Avenue. “He never came back,” said Torres. The boy, whose name his mother prefers to keep private, was killed on June 17, 1993, in East Harlem. The investigation is still open; the shooter is still unknown.
Torres, meanwhile, still grieves for the boy and searches for the killer. more >
The Silver Gun: a Robbery in QueensA newcomer to America finds out what it’s like to have a gun pointed at his ribs
Rajesh Gajra and Danny Patel stand behind a long counter lined with colorful packets of gum, candies, and the usual newsstand goodies. “I’ll take a $2 Powerball and one ‘Quick 5’,” says a man with graying hair across the counter. Gajra exchanges the man’s cash for some animated lottery tickets and a small smile. Gajra and his co-worker and family friend, Patel, a portly, bespectacled man, banter from time to time. But mostly they’re in their own worlds, here in VDK Grocery on College Point Boulevard in Flushing, Queens. Gajra, a 26-year-old graduate student, handles each cash transaction serenely, the same way he handled being held at gunpoint on April 24, just a week before he spoke to the NY City Lens.
“I thought he was kidding at first,” Gajra said of the dark-skinned man in the hooded sweatshirt who walked into the store at 10:45 p.m. on that Sunday. “Give me everything,” the man said. more >
45 Seconds in Life
Wheelchairs Against Guns
Kareem Nelson grew up in a single family household in Harlem, New York. Nelson was a high achieving student and athlete, but as a teenager he began selling drugs in the midst of a crack epidemic. At the age of 21 he was shot and paralyzed by a rival drug dealer in Baltimore, Maryland. Despite being confined to a wheelchair, he continued selling drugs on the streets. One day, he was nearly killed over a deal gone wrong. This incident proved a turning point for Nelson. In 2013, he founded Wheelchairs Against Guns, a nonprofit which teaches students about the dangers of gun violence.
Luis Lopez is also a gunshot survivor and a senior member of Wheelchairs Against Guns. When he was 14 years old, he was robbed at gun point, which left him in a comma and paralyzed for life.
Now, Nelson and Lopez visit about three schools per month sharing their stories to inner city youth. They hold workshops in which they teach students about conflict resolution and critical thinking. The two share their first hand experience to warn students of the dangers gun violence. — Marybel Gonzalez
After a Single Dad is Shot, a Community Reels
It is hard to miss Rashuan Ahart’s apartment on Creston Avenue in Fordham Heights, the Bronx. A cardboard awning decorated with teddy bears and flowers stretches along the front of the building, housing at least a hundred glass candles. Dried-up red, white and blue candle wax obscures chalk messages on the sidewalk, where passersby stop to observe the makeshift memorial to Ahart, who was fatally shot in his home on May 9.
“It’s a cloud over the block right now,” said neighbor Marlon Davis, a Fordham Heights resident of 50 years, standing next to another cluster of flickering candles on the porch of his building. “It’s a grey cloud.”
On the day of his death, Ahart, a 35-year-old single father of a 6-year-old, heard a knock on his door. When he went to answer it, shots tore through his apartment door, striking and killing him. This is the latest incident in a neighborhood plagued by gun violence, and it has left the community tense, fearful and tried.
“It tears up your inner soul,” said Davis. “If I was able to move out right now, I’d be gone.” more >
Dealing with the Damage
An EMS Worker in Bed-Stuy
So in 1988, Robinson and a friend opened the ambulance corps in Bed-Stuy—the nation’s first multi-cultural volunteer ambulance corps and EMT training center, according to Robinson.
The Corps responds to about 400 emergency calls a month with an average response time of less than four minutes. It is connected to most hospitals in Brooklyn, with some 50 volunteers taking part.
The majority of Robinson’s time is spent running his affiliated project, EMS Academy, training the next generation of first responders. The Academy teaches CPR first aid and basic emergency medical training to neighborhood teens and young adults, many of who come from troubled homes. more >
Surgeon’s Guide To Gunshot Wounds
Christine Park remembers him well. He was in his early twenties and seemed too young to be in the hospital for a gunshot wound.
But that’s not what stood out to her most about this patient. What stood out was his CAT scan.
She is a second year surgical resident at Mount Sinai Beth Israel Medical Center. “I don’t think I had ever seen a CAT scan of someone with a retained bullet in their spine,” Park said. “The bullet fragments reflect so much light in the CAT scan. I remember looking at it and thinking, ‘What the hell….’”
Shooter: “It’s Either Them or Me”
“This summer is going to be a crazy summer. I just hope it doesn’t involve anyone that I love.”
John Clark, 17, first contemplated shooting a man when he was just 15 years old after he and two friends broke into an apartment in Atlanta. The owner unexpectedly returned. “ I was scared and I would have shot him,” said Clark, not his real name. Fortunately for the owner, the young boys escaped unchallenged.
Clark, a member of CRIPS, a gang in Queens, finally pulled the trigger in November. The bullet hit a member of a rival gang in the leg, but did not kill him. In an interview, arranged by Life Camp, an organization that sponsors a range of programs in South Jamaica and across the city aimed at thwarting gun violence. The young man, whose name has been changed to secure his anonymity, said that the rival gang member had beaten up his friend, using the ‘hopping method,’ a term gangs use to describe when one person is severely beaten by several others.
“ My friend had a black and blue eye, all puffed up,” he said, adding that he felt the beating was a personal attack on his credibility and street reputation. “ I was like…nah man… they don’t know who they’re messing with.”
“ I had to get revenge,” he said, shaking his head, remembering the encounter. “I don’t feel bad.” more >