Why Johnny gets a gun

ALEC BRUCE STEWART

April 15, 1992|By Alec Bruce Stewart

I WENT ALONG the other night with a friend of mine who is a juvenile intake officer. When a young person is apprehended in the commission of a crime, my friend goes to the police station to determine whether the offender should be sent to a juvenile detention center overnight or be released to the custody of a parent. This particular case concerned a 15-year-old youth we'll call Daryl. An alert team of plainclothesmen spotted him on a street corner in West Baltimore brandishing a .45 caliber pistol.

Daryl's story was credible and commanded sympathy. In recent weeks, he had been held up at gunpoint and harassed repeatedly by an older youth -- a classic bully. I recalled being similarly hounded when I was about the same age. Learning how to handle such situations is part of growing up male. Instinctively, I turned to my father, who instructed me in the manly art of self-defense. When I eventually took on my tormentor, he decided I was more trouble than I was worth and backed off.

Daryl's mother is a single parent of two sons. Having no father to turn to for advice and assistance, Daryl did the next best thing: He went to his 18-year-old brother, who procured the .45 and the two clips of breathtakingly huge slugs that lay before us on the table in the interrogation room at the police station.

Daryl's mother was ushered into the room. Genuinely shocked at this turn of events, she apologized for her son who, she pointed out, had never been in trouble before and had a good record in school. She had cautioned him frequently about getting involved with "bad elements" in school, on the street or anywhere else, and she now bawled him out severely for not having come to her so she could have taken steps to deal with the matter.

However genuine her concern, Daryl's mother was wrong. A young man will sometimes find himself in difficult peer situations where no adult authority -- not his mother, not the police -- can fend for him. Neither his mother nor the police can control the situation that Daryl must reckon with, and he knows it. It's as clear as a gun in your face.

Growing up is about developing independence and self-control, taking charge of your own life. In the inner city, where many teen-agers now routinely acquire and carry guns, the risk of being charged with illegal possession is outweighed by adolescent imperatives to stand tough. Intimidation by a bully results in fear and humiliation, the natural enemies of a young man's self-respect. All very well to point out that growing up also means getting beyond such immature, macho attitudes. But how many young men are mature at 15? I wasn't. Were you?

If Daryl had been 16, he would have been charged as an adult with illegal possession of a firearm. He's not an adult, of course, and won't be in a few months even if he manages to stay alive, as so many young people do not.

But you know all this, as I knew it before my encounter with Daryl. So what's the difference? Daryl's story is not just another TV expose about the senseless violence on our streets. Reluctantly, I acknowledged the apparent logic of his behavior; getting himself a gun presented itself as the obvious solution to his difficulty and the gravity of the situation. And Daryl's case is all too typical; what should be an anti-social aberration has become the norm.

My friend the juvenile intake officer, who deals with dozens of kids like Daryl every week, decided he should be released to the custody of his mother pending appearance in juvenile court. It was plain that she would punish him more effectively than an overnight stay in a detention facility. The plainclothes policemen accepted this decision.

After he had been admonished by everyone else present, I ventured to offer Daryl some advice. You know, I said, this is what's called good bad luck. Bad as it is to be arrested, it would be a whole lot worse to shoot somebody, or to be shot. Take the warning. Learn the lesson.

If only I could have told him how to deal with a gun-toting bully.

Alec Bruce Stewart writes from Baltimore.

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