Recently, This American Life re-ran an episode from 1997 called "Guns," which featured Geoffrey Canada discussing his childhood in the Bronx, the violence he faced there, and the changes brought about when guns became more commonplace among young people in the city. You can listen to the episode online, with Canada's segment beginning at about 15 mins, 50 seconds in (although I recommend that you just sit back and take in the whole episode—it's riveting). On the show, Canada read the following excerpt from his memoir, Fist Stick Knife Gun.
In 1971, well before the explosion of handguns on the streets of New York City, I bought a handgun. I bought the gun legally in Maine, where I was in college. The clerk only wanted to see some proof of residency, and my Bowdoin College I.D. card was sufficient. For a hundred and twenty-five dollars I was the proud owner of a .25-caliber automatic with a seven-shot clip. The gun was exactly what I needed. It was so small I could slip it into my coat pocket or pants pocket.
I needed the gun because we had moved from Union Avenue to 183rd Street in the Bronx, but I still traveled back to Union Avenue during holidays when I was home from school. The trip involved walking through some increasingly dangerous territory. New York City was going through one of its gang phases and several new ones had sprung up in the Bronx. One of the gangs liked to hang out right down the block from where we now lived on 183rd Street and Park Avenue. When I first went away to school I paid no mind to the large group of kids that I used to pass on my way to the store or the bus stop back in the Bronx. The kids were young, fourteen or fifteen years old. At nineteen I was hardly worried about a bunch of street kids who thought they were tough. But over the course of the next year the kids got bolder and more vicious. On several occasions I watched with alarm as swarms of teenagers pummeled adults who had crossed them in one way or another. Everyone knew they were a force to be reckoned with, and many a man and woman crossed the street or walked around the block to keep from having to walk past them.
And I crossed the street also. And there were times that I went out of my way to go to another store rather than walk past the rowdy group of boys who seemed to own the block. On more than one occasion I rounded a corner only to come face to face with the gang. I could feel their eyes on me as I looked straight ahead, hoping none of them would pick a tight. That September in 1971, when I got back to the serenity of Bowdoin College I was more tense than usual. I realized that those kids had me scared. After having survived growing up in the Bronx, here I was scared to go home and walk down my own block. The solution was simple, and as I held the small gun in my hand I knew I had found the answer to my fears.
After a few target-practice sessions I lost interest in the gun. It was simply a tool to me. In Brunswick, Maine, it was a useless one. There was no reason ever to think you would need a gun for protection in Brunswick. So I unloaded the gun and packed it away and forgot about it. The only time I remembered it was when I thought about going home, and it was the first thing I packed when I headed back to the Bronx for winter break.
Things had only gotten worse on my block during my four months away. The kids were more organized and more threatening. There seemed to be more of them than before. But that didn't bother me, I was a changed man. I had a gun. I had a gun, a seven-shot clip, and an attitude.
When I look back on the power the gun had over my personality and my judgment I am amazed. It didn't happen all at once; the change was subtle. At first I continued to avoid the gang of teenagers. I crossed the street or turned down another block when I saw them. But slowly, as I carried the gun with me day after day, my attitude began to change. I began to think, "Why should I have to walk an extra block? Why should I feel that I have to cross the street or look down when I pass those kids?" By the end of two weeks I had convinced myself that all of the habits I had cultivated to avoid conflict with the gang were unnecessarily conciliatory
My behavior when I went outside began to change. I stopped going out of my way, or crossing the street, or avoiding eye contact when I passed the gang. In fact I began to do the opposite. I would choose to go to the grocery store on the side of the street where the gang was gathered. I would walk through them head up, eyes challenging, hand in my coat pocket, finger on the trigger. I was prepared to shoot to kill to defend myself. My rationale was that l was minding my own business, not bothering anyone, but I wasn't going to take any stuff from anyone. If they decided to jump me, well, they would get what they deserved.
I was lucky that winter break. Time quickly came for me to go back to college and no member of the gang had felt the need to challenge the strange young man with fire in his eyes and his hand always in his coat pocket. Away from the madness of the South Bronx, the gun again became just another useless article from home that I wouldn't need until it was time to go back. The serenity of Maine helped me think through the transformation. The same gun, the same person, but a totally different relationship between the two depending on the environment. In Maine the gun was extraneous to my daily existence, in the Bronx the gun was a crucial part of my psyche.
I knew if I continued to carry the gun in the Bronx it would simply be a matter of time before I was forced to use it. My behavior would become more and more reckless each day. Carrying the gun had been like becoming a superhero. Suddenly I'd had power, real power. It had been intoxicating. I thought long and hard that year about carrying the gun. In the end my Christian upbringing proved to be stronger than my fear of the gang or my need for a sense of control over my environment. In the end I realized that I didn't want to kill anyone. I knew that if I continued to carry the gun I would sooner or later pull the trigger. I unloaded the gun, wrapped it in newspaper, took it to the town dump, and threw it away.
In 1971 I was one of the few teenagers walking around with a gun on the streets of New York City. Today young men with guns are the rule in some areas of New York, not the exception. These are young men who are carrying guns for protection and status, not necessarily to shoot someone. And yet, these are young men who because they are armed feel less inclined to avoid confrontations that could escalate into bloodshed. The power of the gun is no less intoxicating to them than it was to me. The evidence of their need to carry a weapon for self-defense is made clear to them every day as they talk about who was shot, who was robbed, who was killed. They are not going to swap their guns just for sneakers, or gift certificates, or small amounts of cash. And unfortunately for us all, many of them have not been raised in the church or with any moral teaching, so the fact that they might end up taking a life is not a persuasive argument for throwing away their guns.
In an old African-American spiritual one verse runs,
I'm gonna lay down my sword and shield
Down by the riverside, ...
Gonna study war no more.
I used to sit in church as a child and wonder what war was being studied. Today there are many young people around this country who have known nothing but war and have studied hard. It's time to do something while we still have time.