White Noise: Gun Deaths in the Backgroundby Stephanie Skaff
An eighteen-year-old boy appeared in a Chicago courtroom wearing a white T-shirt, revealing tattoos on each of his forearms that read, “I’m a dog” and “I’m a beast.” On trial for murder, he was sentenced to 100 years in prison in a medium-security facility outside of the city. His friend was sentenced, too—the one who had handed over the .40 caliber pistol as an offering of self-protection in a gang dispute. Although I never met the boy who was convicted of murder, I did meet the mother of the boy he’d shot and killed. We sat together on her son’s bed, my shoes on the carpet alongside his immaculate sneaker collection, which she’d left completely intact years after he’d died.
This was in 2009, when I was working for the New York City-based documentary film center, DCTV, as the director of a gun violence-prevention campaign. I spent the first year traveling around the country, listening to people’s stories. Talking with teenagers who saw no point in getting a driver’s license because they imagined they’d be shot dead before ever taking advantage of the right to drive a car. Entering a church to attend a funeral only to be warned that a revenge shooting outside might be in the works. Walking through Milwaukee with the District Attorney and stumbling upon a bullet casing (the D.A. picking it up as if it were a discarded napkin) and afterward, on the drive to my hotel, passing a pickup truck whose rear bed was filled with guns for sale. Is that legal? I wondered. It is, I learned the next day from members of WAVE (Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort). That’s because of the private sale loophole, also known as the gun show loophole, which allows private sellers to sell guns from their personal collection without a federal license or required background check.
That boy from Chicago may have traced his gun to such a private seller up the road in Wisconsin. Where his self-image came from, though, is far more complicated.
Learning about gun violence in the United States means learning about a daunting network of interconnected problems: segregation, inequality, fear and corruption in government and our criminal justice system, lack of quality public education, and the power of corporate interests over civil rights. There is so much to confront—ideologically, politically, personally—that the mind (or, my mind, anyway) can simply shut down. Thankfully, there are journalists willing to move past the ubiquity of gun violence to expose the social realities underneath.
In Gary Younge’s new book, Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives (Nation Books, 2016), lives of the dead are pieced together through meticulous research and compassionate conversation. Younge took time trying to understand the circumstances surrounding each of their deaths, and he brings readers into his process. We go with him as he speaks to grieving families at chain restaurants across the country, personal homes down rural dirt roads, or apartments in suburban gang territory. He traverses the country, visiting cities in the East, South, and West. He observes features of the neighborhoods where his subjects were raised and where they died—a series of streets named for fairytales, for instance—or the tone of a posthumous Facebook conversation among relatives about blame and personal responsibility. (Hashing out grief on social media is hardly surprising these days, but I found disconcerting how pervasive it is, and yet how inadequate, how many misunderstandings arise.) As Younge seems to understand, specifics matter in telling the story of gun violence in the United States. They matter because they activate our imaginations, humanize our fellow citizens, and help us piece together a bigger, and more nuanced, picture of our country as it reckons with its economic, judicial, and ethical failures.
Each chapter is dedicated to one of ten young people between the ages of nine and nineteen who died from a gunshot on November 23, 2013. Younge chose this day at random and then went deeper, moving chronologically through the day. His introduction begins, “The most common adjective employed by weather reporters on Saturday, November 23, 2013 was treacherous. But in reality there was not a hint of betrayal about it.” He starts with the weather, the most banal subject of small talk, to make a point about what he calls the “white noise” of gun violence in our country, “set sufficiently low to allow the country to go about its business undisturbed: a confluence of culture, politics, and economics that guarantees that each morning several children will wake up but not go to bed while the rest of the country sleeps soundly.”
Although his research about these young people’s deaths unearths particulars, he used what he learned to “explore the way they lived their short lives, the environments they inhabited, and what the context of their passing might tell us about society at large.” Uncovering the qualities and characteristics of each individual life helps us eventually understand the broader significance of their deaths.
Younge describes towns and cities with idiosyncratic and surprisingly telling details—Goldsboro, NC’s most notable residents, for instance, or 1870s news coverage from Newark in its former industrial prominence. He details the speed of the police response to the call of a shooting, the questions a 911 operator asks on the line, and how paramedics keep their distance from a dying boy in case of retaliation from a nearby shooter. He discusses the development of the adolescent brain, and from what he describes about these teenagers’ social media posts, we understand the impulsivity, fear, and confusion inherent in teenage life, in whatever community. Except, as he points out in a quote from the Washington Post: “Poor kids who do everything right don’t do better than rich kids who do everything wrong.” Younge lays bare the discrepancies between rich and poor, majority and minority, in everyday life as well as in death.
As a Barbadian man who was born and raised in England, then lived in the United States with his wife and two American-born children for twelve years, Younge has a unique perspective on guns. He can look to England, which he claims is no model of peace but where violence is far from deadly in the way that it is in the U.S., largely because of the lack of guns. He places gun deaths in the context of history, discussing class, race, and even the role of journalism in reporting on shootings, positioning this as a distinctly American phenomenon.
The journalist Dan Baum, an anomaly as both a self-described liberal and a gun rights advocate, wrote in Harper’s: “It’s true that America’s rate of violent crime remains higher than that in most European countries. But to focus on guns is to dodge a painful truth. America is more violent than other countries because Americans are more violent than other people.” Baum has come out against the NRA, calling the organization “a catastrophe for this country,” yet his statement about American’s violent nature sounds a lot like the NRA mantra: guns don’t kill people; people kill people.
Disguising a social problem as one of individual responsibility is also distinctly American. Did eleven-year-old Brandon in Michigan, as featured in a chapter of Younge’s book, have intent to kill his best friend Tyler Dunn, or did Tyler die because a gun was involved in an otherwise normal play date? If the gun hadn’t been available, would Brandon still have killed his friend? We can’t know, nor can we speak to the intentions of every individual involved in a shooting. However, according to the Small Arms Survey 2007: Guns and Cities, “civilians own approximately 650 million firearms worldwide, roughly 75% of the known total. U.S. citizens alone own some 270 million of these, with ninety firearms for every 100 people.” With such a high rate of gun ownership, is it possible to separate guns from our homicide rate as the NRA suggests? Can we assume individual responsibility, ignoring the businesses flooding our cities with guns and our failure to legislate the industry?
Younge’s experience of the NRA gives us insight into why our country seems incapable of making any progress to safeguard communities from guns. The fear they espouse is profound. Not only the message “they’re coming to take away your guns,” their desperate justifications for having guns in the first place. Younge attends an NRA convention and learns firsthand the fictional world of constant home invasions and robberies that Wayne LaPierre, NRA’s Executive Vice President, has invented. LaPierre and the NRA are compensated quite well for their storytelling skills. In 2015, the organization, which is also a tax-exempt charity, made $57 million and its executive staff made over $8 million. They are making millions of dollars off of individuals who pay dues in order to tell those individuals to take care of themselves.
Another Day in the Death of America is not a book about gun control, though. Rather, as Younge states, it’s “a book made possible by the absence of gun control.” In conversation with the New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb, Younge remarked on the fact that gun control never came up in his conversations with relatives and friends of the deceased. He expressed bafflement at the idea of writing a book about gun violence in the U.S. without talking about gun control. Could that be possible? But in the book he notes that, “child gun deaths, indeed any gun deaths have become generally understood in the same way as car accidents. They are the unfortunate, if heavy, price one pays for living in 21st-century America.”
Poor and minority communities pay the price of gun violence, not exclusively, but most heavily. This became evident to me in my travels, and Younge discusses it in depth. It’s especially painful to read stories of parents who are grieving the death of their child and simultaneously internalizing our country’s message of personal responsibility. The trauma of loss becomes compounded by shame, by a sense that they are somehow to blame for living in a dangerous neighborhood or having children at a young age or working too many jobs to have enough time to spend with their families.
Jaiden Dixon was a nine-year-old boy who was shot and killed by his mother’s ex-partner. The boy simply answered the doorbell when it rang, and Danny Thornton shot him and fled. Jaiden’s mother was doing all she could to keep her children away from this dangerous man, and as a single mother she had worked her way out of a homeless shelter as a paralegal in a small law office. She expresses regret for being “stressed and depressed all the time.” She wishes that she hadn’t come home and ordered pizzas, but had gone outside to play with her children. Yet her exhaustion was a direct result of the care she was showing for her children. Jaiden’s death was at the hands of a domestic abuser who had access to guns and a wish for suicide by cop. Our American individualism will tell her that this was somehow her fault, that if only she hadn’t been involved with a violent man or had better access to money and opportunity that her child wouldn’t have been killed.
Younge does not avoid the fact that some of the kids profiled in his book had criminal records, violent tendencies. He recognizes their flaws and addresses those flaws, but he doesn’t stop there. He investigates each story completely, uncovering the person behind the criminal record or the violent history. When I was researching the story of the boy in Chicago, I struggled to find information about him. I could find out only what he looked like at his trial—his T-shirt, his tattoos—and his lawyer’s argument that his IQ indicated a developmental disability. His story felt critical to understanding the crime, yet he remained a mystery. As such, it was easy to vilify him. Younge’s thorough, compassionate research into each of his subjects, their lives and circumstances, feels more complete than any other reporting on gun violence I’ve read.
Reading Another Day in the Death of America requires taking some breaks to digest it all. It’s painful and frustrating. But the book feels essential. It’s filled with humane, honest, and dignified reporting on gun violence victims and even on those who pulled the trigger. Younge does us all a great service in listening through the “white noise” of everyday gun violence to piece together individual features of our collective humanity.
STEPHANIE SKAFF is a writer and performing artist with an MFA in Fiction Writing from Hunter College. She works as Development and Outreach Associate at the Brooklyn Rail.