Next to a sign begging children to turn in their guns, a boy is giggling as he opens his cellphone. The preteen is eager to show off his prized possession: a photo of a gun.
He says he can’t turn in the weapon during the city’s gun amnesty because the photo has been faked. He made a toy gun look like a deadly weapon.
That’s a secret. He wants his friends to believe it’s real, to think he’s breaking the law.
To say that he’s not interested in the gun amnesty is a gross understatement. But these are the people that city officials say they must reach if they’re going to put a stop to the increasing gun violence in Schenectady.
Officials are so concerned about increasing gun violence that they are now talking about paying people to turn in their illegal weapons. So far, the city’s free amnesty program has netted just seven guns, all of which were legal, and the violence outdoors has escalated.
“In March alone, we’ve had 24 calls for shots fired,” said police spokesman Kevin Green. “Out of those, five people were actually shot. That’s pretty alarming actually.”
In April, the shootings continued. Then this past Tuesday, a man was killed, shot in the back on Bridge Street.
“Some cities go months without shots fired; we’re going pretty much every day,” Green said. “It’s pretty scary.”
But among many of the young in one of the city’s poorer neighborhoods, guns aren’t scary. They’re cool.
On Hamilton Hill, 13- and 14-year-olds gather in nice weather to play a game they love, in which they re-enact a drive-by shooting. Sometimes they play with paintballs, using expensive guns that they have spraypainted to look like real weapons. This night, armed with BB guns, they shot holes in each other’s apartment windows. Then they turned on each other.
BBs flew down the sidewalk. Victims shouted, aimed their own guns and shot back. Passers-by quickly moved out of the way.
No one tried to stop them or lectured them on the danger of mimicking real guns. Several adults just shrugged, saying it was a harmless game.
On another occasion, a boy playing the game took refuge in the Craig Street Boys and Girls Club. He refused to leave, knowing that outside, other boys were waiting to ambush him.
The boys outside finally lost patience, slammed open the doors and fired paintball guns into the hallway.
‘itching for guns’
“Nobody got hurt,” said club Education Specialist Solange Warner. “They’re not real guns, they’re BB guns. They’re trying to pass it off as real. It proves how hard you really are.”
Warner sees it all the time.
“Fourteen and 15 is the normal age where they’ll come up to me,” she said. “One kid kept saying, ‘Don’t look in this box!’ So of course I look in the box and there’s a gun. He told me he wasn’t going to shoot someone, he was going to shoot out someone’s windows.”
She took heart from the fact that it was only a BB gun. But that level of gun love is dangerous, District Attorney Robert Carney said.
“There are some so enamored with their guns that not only do they have it, they’re itching to fire it,” he said. “They pose the greatest risk.”
He thinks the problem is best addressed on a psychological level.
“They’re itching for guns because they aren’t getting what they need somewhere else in their lives,” he said, citing children who don’t grow up with their fathers, don’t know how to earn respect from their peers and feel as though they have no control over their lives.
Carney said it’s a phenomenon prevalent among the youth. “I assume it has something to do with empowerment and being respected and taken seriously,” he said.
Although younger teens want guns because they’re cool, Carney is convinced that the older teenagers who actually get a real gun are involved in crime.
“To know how to buy and obtain an illegal weapon tells me they are involved in illicit activity that causes them to be attacked,” he said.
Many men disagreed, saying they started carrying real guns in their late teens after being attacked one too many times on Hamilton Hill.
Some of them suggested that a gun would have immeasurably helped a man who was savagely beaten by 30 teenagers as he walked through the neighborhood on his way home from work last week. They said the man could have scared the youths off if he had been armed, but Carney said the fight would more likely have ended up with someone dead.
“Would it have scared them off or made it more likely someone would be killed? Did some of them have a gun?” he said. “It’s an escalation of violence. We need de-escalation.”
He said that even on Hamilton Hill, law-abiding citizens do not need a gun to protect themselves.
“A person who lives in this community and is a productive member of this community is not going to need a gun to protect himself,” he said.
Longtime residents of the Hill said Carney has no idea what it’s like to live in the impoverished area. Although some of the young people interviewed for this story admitted buying marijuana and implied that they also sold drugs, others said they need a gun even though they aren’t involved in gangs or drugs.
“It don’t matter,” said one 26-year-old man, who carries a pistol. “You’re living in the ghetto, man, c’mon. No matter where you go, you still need it.”
A 20-year-old man, who asked that his name not be used, said he started carrying a gun long ago to keep himself safe.
“If you’re going to have cops everywhere I go, I’ll turn in my nine,” he said, using a slang word for gun. “Before you ask me why I carry a gun, ask a cop why they carry a gun. They tell us we can’t carry weapons but they carry four weapons on their waist.”
To prove his point, he said he was threatened by a stranger with a gun when he walked unarmed through Hamilton Hill after a late-night party.
The attacker, along with four other people, stood in the middle of the street and cocked a gun, pointing it directly at him.
“I unzipped my jacket to show I didn’t have any gun,” the man said. “And his friend said, ‘I know him, he’s cool.’ And he kept saying, ‘You sure? You sure?’ ”
The attacker eventually let him leave, but the man said the incident left him shaken.
“I didn’t know him,” he said. “He thought I was somebody else. The only way you get out of that situation is to have a gun.”
Others offered similar stories. One 19-year-old man said he was shot and robbed for his cigarettes. Now he carries his own unlicensed, illegal handgun.
“Apparently [N-word] got money for guns and bullets but not cigarettes,” the white man said in disgust.
Carney acknowledged that occasionally, an innocent victim is shot on Hamilton Hill.
Last summer, two women were injured by stray bullets when a man opened fire on a crowded street. He was aiming at another man but missed.
In 2005, two teenagers shot a man and two bystanders in an attempt to steal a gold chain necklace.
“So it does happen,” Carney said. “All of them were innocent victims.”
But, he said, it wouldn’t have helped if the victims had guns.
“I think it would have just meant more bullets firing and more potential for innocent victims,” he said.
The men interviewed for this story seemed to agree. They said that if they pull out their guns, they’re aiming to kill.
“We don’t have a problem with murder,” a 20-year-old said.
A 25-year-old added, “I’m trying to live out here. Nobody wants to carry a gun. You have to. People got beef out here. I’ve been shot — shot at, you dig?”
He paused a moment, pretending to think about what he would do if he was shot at again.
Then he demanded, “When is it cool to get shot and not shoot back?”
Many groups are firmly dedicated to quashing that idea. They’re trying to train children to never pick up a gun.
At the Craig Street Boys and Girls Club, employees spend much of their time mediating disputes and teaching the children conflict resolution.
In honor of Martin Luther King Day, the club hung up a calendar and tried to have 40 days of nonviolence. Every time children got into a fight, a day was crossed off. In the end, they’d managed only 22 peaceful days.
New program director Adrienne Pagerey also instituted a policy of calling parents in for a meeting whenever their children got into a fight. So far, the results have been discouraging: only about half of the parents show up, and some don’t seem to understand why Pagerey is opposed to violence.
“Some say to me, ‘I understand my son got into a fight. That’s what I taught him to do,’ ” Pagerey said. “That was shocking to me.”
She keeps enforcing the no-fighting rule anyway.
“If the kids fight, they have to leave. We lost a lot of our population when I took over,” she said.
In the computer lab, club technology specialist Jacqueline Smith banned all violent Internet sites, including MySpace, which she said has some videos of gang violence.
“We’re trying to break the chain. In the middle school, they talk about fighting all the time. It’s glorified. Why? The parents do it,” she said.
She figures the club has only a few years to teach the children another way of life.
“By the time they get to 16,” she said, “the streets already got them.”
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Categories: Schenectady County