July 28, 2012
Living With Gunfire in the Background
By GINIA BELLAFANTE
Had Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg not had the ghastly perch of the shootings in Aurora, Colo., from which to reassert his campaign for sane gun-control legislation, events in New York would have given him ample foundation. Beginning on Sunday, with an appearance on “Face the Nation,” he called for a federal ban on assault weapons, for stronger background checks on those seeking to buy guns and for national leadership that might address the madness.
By the time he appeared on television again the next morning, a 4-year-old boy, Lloyd Morgan, had been shot and killed in the Morrisania section of the Bronx after a gun battle broke out around a basketball game, near where he had been playing.
Two days later, on Wednesday night, gunfire erupted at another basketball game, in Rucker Park in Harlem, wounding five people.
And these shootings in New York City, each offering dark buttress for the mayor’s argument, occurred in a 72-hour time frame. So far this year, according to the Police Department, 957 people have been victims of shootings in the city — an increase of 7 percent in the same period in 2011 — with 144 of the shootings resulting in death. Each year since 2009, the number of shootings in the city has gone up.
This summer has been particularly dramatic, especially over the Fourth of July holiday, a traditionally crime-ridden time. Although the murder rate is down in the city so far this year, for the week of July 2 to 8, the number of shootings was up by one-third compared with the same period the previous year.
Three weeks ago in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, residents rallied to end gun violence after a 3-year-old boy, caught in the cross-fire at a playground, was shot in the leg. On July 21, the day before Lloyd Morgan was killed on the grounds of the Forest Houses, Elquinn Warner, 26, suffered a bullet wound to his abdomen from a semiautomatic 9-millimeter handgun at the McKinley Houses across the street during a dispute. He survived, but perhaps because something like this has come to seem so common, the shooting went unreported in the news media.
In its defense of loose gun laws, the National Rifle Association has seemingly had very little to say about the contingent problems gun mythology produces in cities — the perversions of civility that only guns can introduce. In parts of New York, the sound of gunfire assumes the tenor of background noise, enervating communities and drastically reordering the rhythms of ordinary life.
When talking about gunfire, residents of the Forest and McKinley Houses deploy a set of metaphors to describe its ubiquity: it’s like hearing an ice cream truck, they say, or airplanes overhead, or nearly anything else that is part of the soundtrack of existence.
“My son is 3, and he can tell the difference between a gunshot and a firecracker,” Bryant Williams, a resident of the McKinley Houses for 30 years, told me outside his building last week. “They are very similar sounds. That’s crazy.”
Not long ago, Ernesto Valentino, who has lived in the Forest Houses for 50 years, heard gunshots outside his window on consecutive nights. From what he could tell, a teenager was shooting in the air with no particular ambition. By the time the police would arrive to investigate, he told me, the boy would be long gone, having climbed high into one of the adjacent buildings. When gunshots awaken Maria Gomez, in a neighboring building, she can never go back to sleep, she said, so she stays up all night watching whatever happens to be on Lifetime Television.
Typically lost in discussions of gun control is the social cost of all this attendant anxiety. Patterns are disrupted; life is constrained. Nilda Herrera, who is 19, has been working as a home health aide at the McKinley Houses for less than a year. In that time, three shootings have occurred outside the building where she works, one of them ending in death. In one instance, she witnessed people shooting at each other while she was sitting on a bench waiting to begin her shift. Ever since, she has gone inside as soon as she arrives.
Living amid guns requires imposing a curfew on yourself. For some of the women I spoke to, that was 7 p.m.; for others, it was 8 or 9 p.m. Until five years ago or so, Mr. Valentino said, he would play dominoes at a friend’s house and return home past midnight, but he no longer feels safe after dark. If you’re making dinner at 8 and you’re missing an ingredient, the only reasonable choice is to “substitute,” as one woman put it. Understanding the social politics of the world around you is essential, Mr. Williams said, “so that you know who has an issue with who” and can get out of the way when you see a dispute forming. And so many of the disputes have their roots “in nonsense,” he said.
Epidemiological studies in recent years have confirmed what ought to surprise no one: exposure to violent communities predisposes people, especially the young, to post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and so on. There are the immediate and enormous public-health costs of treating gunshot wounds, and then we must figure in the cascading costs of treating — or, more perilous, ignoring — all the various ancillary conditions to which gun culture gives birth.
“The first time I ever saw a shooting, I was in fourth grade,” a tall boy with a Mohawk announced when he overheard me talking about crime at the Forest Houses.
“What grade are you in now?” I asked.
“Sixth,” he said.