Gary Younge is glad he didn’t grow up in America. “I was one of three black boys in a single parent family,” he says. In the U.S., “statistically, one of us was going to be dead or in prison.”
Today, Younge, a British journalist, is married to an American and is a father to two black children. Over the 12 years he spent reporting in the U.S. for the Guardian, he discovered how much gun violence pervades everyday American life — especially African American life. He spoke with people like Nicole Fitzpatrick, whose 9-year-old son Jaiden was killed by her armed, unhinged ex-partner, collateral damage of a domestic crisis. And Mario Black, a Charlotte, North Carolina school counselor who tried to steer students away from the streets, but still lost a 17-year-old student to a late-night gas station argument.
At times, the focus of his reporting struck frighteningly close to home: His wife once had to shelter from a street shooting while on a nighttime stroll when the Younges lived in Chicago. Melting snow near his son’s school revealed a mislaid pistol.
Younge’s new book about American gun violence, Another Day in The Death of America, is a series of case studies of what he calls the “white noise” of gun death. He reported on the lives and sudden deaths of 10 Americans between the ages of nine and 19, who died of gunshot wounds on November 23, 2013, an otherwise “unremarkable Saturday,” as he writes in the book’s introduction.
In the poor, urban black neighborhoods where homicide by gun is most common, Younge encountered “a generation of people who are sensitized to the fact of death.” In practical terms, that means “kids tell me they can’t go to another funeral.” People in these communities have a familiarity with death that is akin to those in war zones, Younge says.
In the course of his reporting, Younge spoke with a crime reporter at the Dallas Morning News, who told him that his readership in the predominantly white neighborhoods of North Dallas have no idea what’s going on in poor, black South Dallas. So, the writer said, “I explain it the way I would if I was writing about Lebanon.”
Segregation in cities, Younge said, “is a serious barrier to any kind of empathy.”
For all of America’s unique deadliness, Younge was surprised at how infrequently the people he spoke with pointed to guns as the cause. The NRA’s talking point that “guns don’t kill, people do” has been internalized by many — not just white conservatives.
Younge recalled a woman he met at an anti-violence rally in Indianapolis whose son had been shot in the head and paralyzed. The victim’s mother believed “parenting” ultimately led the shooter to nearly kill her child. When he asked Judy Williams, the cofounder of the Charlotte, North Carolina group Mothers of Murdered Offspring, about the cause of gun violence, she said: “People are not going to church anymore.”
Younge is skeptical of such moralizing. The more he reported on kids, guns, and American life, the more “achingly normal” he found those lives disrupted or destroyed by shootings to be, regardless of background or nationality.
“Kids everywhere do the same things,” Younge says. “Call of Duty, Minecraft, smuggling girls into their rooms, experimenting with drugs, talking back to their parents, liking school, not liking school.” A moral crisis only explains American gun violence, he points out, if “you think Americans are worse parents than in other nations, or Americans kids are worse kids.”
Younge set out to correct the misperceptions about gun violence both here in the States and abroad. He wants to disabuse people of the notion that “gun violence is a problem of extraordinary mass shootings,” or that they stem from some social disease. “When people hear about these incidents, they treat them like they’re the work of a different species,” he says. “It’s flawed facts, really.”
Foreign governments like France and Germany alert their citizens to the prevalence of firearms in America before they travel here, and one Scottish tourism expert told told USA Today last summer, that “America has surprised the rest of the world because of all the mass shootings and the attitudes on gun control, or lack of it.”
During Younge’s time in the U.S. — he lived in New York first, then Chicago — he found that gun violence was indeed central to American life, but not in the way foreigners commonly imagined.
For all the media attention they garner around the world, mass shootings are still rare events. Rather, Younge realized, the sheer prevalence of guns leads to a constant low-level hum of tragedy and violence that claims many young lives. They die in the course of events that are commonplace around the world — personal disputes, momentary parental carelessness — but that turn deadly in America because guns are often close at hand.
In British towns, like the London suburb where Younge grew up, physical violence is prevalent. With its “soccer hooligans and skinheads, Britain has a proud tradition of beating people up,” he says.
“I’ve often felt quite physically vulnerable in Britain,” Younge continues. “but I haven’t feared for my life.” That, he says, is due to the absence of guns in the U.K.
The kids he wrote about in his new book are not so different from his own 9-year-old son. When Younge’s family lived in Chicago, he and his wife decided not to let their son have toy guns. They explained to him “guns kill people, and they’re not toys,” without getting into the more adult considerations that informed that decision, like what might happen if a stranger thought a toy gun held by their black son was real.
His family recently visited friends in the English countryside who let their own son play with fake guns. When the two boys grabbed the toy guns and ran outside with them, Younge and his wife panicked, their minds immediately turning to Tamir Rice, the black 12-year-old who was fatally shot by police who believed his toy gun was real.
But then Younge remembered that they weren’t in America anymore. “Nobody here will assume that’s a real gun,” he says he realized. “And even if they did — which they don’t — nobody here has a gun. He’ll be fine.”
[Photo: Rex Features via AP Images]