What will it take to stop gun violence?

May 6, 2008

WASHINGTON, D.C., teenager Deidrick Johnson stands accused of taking part in two recent drive-by shootings, one outside a high school, that injured a total of nine other young people. Johnson, who has a history of violence, and the nine teenage victims are now--and likely were before--part of a majority of District youth who have experienced gun violence.

That's according to a survey of 1,512 students ages 9 to 19 in predominantly Black middle and high schools, as well as other venues, in Washington. The results, which the study's authors say are similar to those yet to be finalized from neighboring Prince George's County, Maryland, showed that 80 percent of respondents are "highly exposed" to gun violence, meaning that a loved one had been shot or that the sound of gunshots is common in their community. In the words of Wanda Hill, aged 17, "People die every day. I'm used to it. I live in D.C."

The survey is the first of its kind and is significant because of the volume of respondents. But still, activist Kenneth Barnes, Sr., CEO of D.C.-based Reaching Out to Others Together (ROOT), was startled by the findings in spite of seven years of experience fighting gun violence. He formed the organization in 2001 after his son was killed in D.C. during a robbery.

"Gun violence is a symptom that has reached epidemic proportions," Barnes said in an interview. But it is a symptom, he stresses, that "comes from dysfunctional families, substance abuse, racism, poverty, lack of education. And all the messages in music and on TV is like pouring gasoline on the fire." His organization hypothesizes that the same study in any city across the country would yield the same results. "It can't be dealt with through suppression," continued Barnes, "through locking people up."

However, of those 80 percent of "highly exposed" youth, 67 percent said they had not received any form of counseling or therapy. "There is less than 10 percent intervention by a specialist," says Barnes. "We've found that a lot of children they say have learning disabilities have the same symptoms as PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. We're trying to coin the term 'current traumatic stress disorder,' because 'post' means it's past, but these children are still living with violence."

Ann Brogioli, a Southeast Washington middle school social worker, told the Washington Post that students who repeatedly witness gun violence "can act up in class, become withdrawn or, worse, grow numb to violence."

And Southeast Washington is notorious for its poverty and crime. In fact, it's the part of D.C. that Deidrick Johnson, the 17-year-old drive-by suspect, grew up in.

He is going to be charged as an adult in both shootings, convictions which could essentially take away the rest of his best years--on top of the two he's already spent in juvenile detention--and leave the nine young victims with "justice," perhaps, but little chance of help for their traumatic experiences and those they're still likely to face.
Chris Yarrison, Washington, D.C

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