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City Limits

“He Said, ‘Lady, Your Kid’s Dead.’ That’s How I Found Out.”

Accounts from the front lines of urban gun violence. This week: Stories from Houston, Texas, where a rash of brutal shootings and a rising homicide rate have left residents and officials with more questions than answers.

“It appears that just starting off this year we’re pretty busy,” remarked one Houston, Texas, police sergeant after a particularly bloody weekend in March that claimed seven lives. “So I kind of anticipate a heavy summer.”

Heavy it was: In July, a local news station reported that one Houston resident has been killed every 30 hours, on average, in 2015. But those reports did not prepare the city for what came next. The following month, 48-year-old David Conley brutally murdered his ex-girlfriend, her partner, and her six children, shooting his victims execution-style after breaking into their home. The crime held a gruesome similarity to an incident last year, when a Houston man fatally shot six members of his ex-wife’s family, four of them children. As summer wound to a close, there was another episode of shocking violence. On a Friday night in late August, a sheriff’s deputy was ambushed at a gas station in the northwest part of town, just miles from where Conley murdered his victims. The suspect reportedly emptied 15 rounds into Darren Goforth’s head and back.

Less than two months prior, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed a bill authorizing the open carry of handguns in the state. The law will take effect on January 1, 2016. Today is possible,Abbott said during the signing at a shooting range, because we have legislators who stepped up, did the right thing, crafted legislation, collaborated to get the votes that were needed to expand gun rights in the state of Texas.

When the new year arrives, Houston will be the one of the largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. to allow the open carry of handguns, according to the city’s top law enforcement leader. Officials will contend with that law as they continue to battle gun violence throughout the city, which this year has claimed the lives of sons and daughters, husbands and wives, and elementary school children.

As part of a weekly series on Americas urban gun violence epidemic, the Trace shares three stories from Houston residents whose lives have been reshaped by shootings.

The police chief wondering ‘where’s the outrage?’

Police Chief Charles McClelland, 60, has served the Houston Police Department for 37 years, starting as a patrol officer in 1977. He was sworn in as chief on April 14, 2010.

Responding to gun violence impacts me emotionally because I’m seeing one of our most precious resources being destroyed daily. And I’m talking about the young men and women, especially young minority men, who are being killed at a very prolific rate. I see how it impacts families when these tragedies take place. If you look at the homicides — at where they’re occurring and the motives behind the murders and who is committing them — youll find that the overwhelming majority are committed by young minority men. And for the past year, 72 percent are black on black.

The three main motives for homicides are illegal drugs, common arguments, and domestic violence. To a lesser extent, there are some robberies. So, if you wrap all those up, there are really only two motives: money and passion.

I just don’t see that communities and neighborhoods are as outraged or frustrated as police officers are about this issue. I believe that if young minority men were dying of some disease, or for any other reason, it would be an outrage. I feel that sometimes our city looks at it like these are just things that happen in a big city, and feel like it’s a police problem. The responsibility is not shared with other social agencies, educational institutions or the business community. Because these young men and women are dying of gun violence in their own neighborhoods, by folks that they know and not total strangers, it doesn’t seem to resonate with communities as much as a police officer using excessive force, even if he or she met the legal standards to justify the shooting. That will spark more outrage than all of these young men being gunned down every single day and night. But to mothers and grandmothers and the parents who are losing these young men, and I can tell you, the pain, the anguish is the same.

Of course, another issue for me is that Texas has very lax gun laws. These loose gun laws do make my job more challenging, and I certainly oppose some of the laws that have been enacted. Take, for instance, this new open carry law. Come January 1, Houston and Dallas will be the largest metropolitan areas in the United States to allow the open carry of handguns.

So when a person is openly carrying a handgun, how are officers supposed to know if that person has the lawful right to own and carry that firearm? They have no way of knowing. And when will officers be expected to challenge an individual and stop and detain them? If they’re walking toward a bank or financial institution? If they’re walking toward a school? If they’re walking toward a church, a mosque, a synagogue? When officers routinely respond to disturbances with firearms involved, how are they supposed to know the good guy from the bad guy? So, I think it certainly has made the environment less safe for officers on the street.

The principal who sees how gun violence shapes the classroom

Duane Clark, 36, is the principal of Worthing High School in southeast Houston. He’s worked in education for more than a decade and has served at city schools in for more than seven.

I’ve been in education for 15 years now, and in those 15 years, I have had a number of cases where gun violence has had a major effect on students. A former student of mine, shortly after he graduated, was shot and killed. I coached four former athletes who shot and killed a police officer. This was back in 2008, and they were all charged and arrested for it.

A couple of times a year for my first five or six years in Houston, there would be students who had family members or friends who were in altercations that involved some type of gun violence.

It can happen for a multitude of reasons. The one young man I knew who was shot, he involved himself in drug dealing, and that was the reason that he was murdered. I taught him and I coached him in football for four years. He was extremely intelligent and I think peer pressure just caught up to him and he got caught up in it. Unfortunately, some of the signs were there early, and some of the other coaches and I had tried to address that earlier.

He was an intelligent student, but he consistently surrounded himself with the…I guess what you would consider the wrong kind of students. He was an ‘A’ and ‘B’ student, but he would regularly want to act out or hang out with those who weren’t trying to go to class. and things like that. I felt extremely bad for him and his family. No parent should have to bury their child. He was in college at the time and would have had a very bright future. But I’ve also learned to use it as as teaching tool for future students, to explain how mistakes and missteps and bad judgements can lead to disaster.

As an educator, you may have the ability to recognize those who may be at risk of activities that will lead to gun violence. But as far as saying who exactly will be affected, it’s hard. Some of the gun violence is not necessarily group-related or gang-related. Sometimes it just happens. It’s not one thing we can point to and say, ‘If we did this, it would stop.’

The mother who will never get her daughter back

Gilda Muskwinsky, 69, is the mother of Raynell Muskwinsky, 17, who was killed on August 15, 1984 when two acquaintances robbed and shot her and her boyfriend. Gilda now heads the Houston chapter of Parents of Murdered Children and has lived in the city for most of her life.

Raynell was a typical 17-year-old. She loved life, she was real outgoing, she was real vivacious. Everyone loved her. And she had a big, good heart. All she could talk about was the prom. She was with her boyfriend when she died, and actually both of them were murdered. Two of his friends dealt drugs, but also did them, so they owed their suppliers a lot of money. They sat down and planned on killing her boyfriend, David, and they just killed Raynell because she was there. I did a mediation with one of the killers, Steve Figueroa, and that’s exactly what he told me: ‘I shot her because she was there.’

Raynell’s curfew was between 12:30 and 1 a.m., and the night she was killed, I woke up at about 1:30. And when I woke up, I knew she wasn’t there. I waited a little bit, and then I started calling all her friends. All through the morning I kept calling everybody. I even called police stations, and the Harris County Medical Examiner’s office. I went on into work, and at that time, Houston had funeral directors inform people about deaths. So, it was a funeral director that called me. As a matter of fact, we were not told in a very good way. I mean, there was no good way to tell us, but the guy who owned the funeral home, he told me the kids had been found. So at first, I thought they were alive. But when I said, ‘Well, where are they?’, he said, ‘Lady, your kid’s dead.’ That’s how I found out.

You never get over losing a child, and you try to get better. But it’s hard. Raynell was so pretty that we’d be at the mall and people would stop and stare at her. To this day, I’ll be at the mall or and see someone who looks like her and think, ‘Oh my God, that’s Raynell.’ You never really get over it. I guess you just learn to live with it. I still get very emotional when the old song ‘Footloose’ comes on, because her and I, when I took her to school, we’d just sing that as loud as we could. I can still remember the days after she died. You know when you were a kid and you’d dive down in the pool and look up at the surface? Remember how distorted everything was? That’s how I was. I could not even tell you my name.

[Photo: Flickr user Doug]