‘All kids our age think of nowadays is guns’

Mass shootings may get the national headlines, but for young people in Kalamazoo, hearing gunshots and seeing threats of gun violence are so routine it feels inescapable. It’s a heavy burden they’re forced to carry into the start of summer break.

The argument escalates quickly these days. The decision to respond with a gun is too quick. No time to care for consequences. The brain of a kid is still developing that part.

“To be looking over your shoulder at this age is really crazy,” says 16-year-old Kalamazoo Central High School student Diamond, one of a number of young people gathered Monday evening in Bronson Park to commemorate National Gun Violence Awareness Day. Too many have their own story – being grazed by a bullet, losing a friend, watching their father get gunned down.

It’s the everyday violence that haunts the kids NowKalamazoo talked to in Bronson Park. NowKalamazoo is only using their first names to protect their privacy. They all say the normalization of guns is growing among their peers.

Just two days after the commemoration, a 17-year-old junior at Loy Norrix High School was killed in a drive-by shooting on Stockbridge Avenue in the Edison neighborhood.

Firearms are the number one cause of death in the country for people 19 and under, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data analyzed by John Hopkins researchers.  Nationwide, suicide and homicide are the biggest culprits.

Earlier this year in January, KDPS Chief David Boysen told MLive that more teens ages 14-17 are involved in gun violence.

The kids learn it somewhere, as adult gun culture in America manifests into violence for them in many ways, most notably neighborhood violence and mass shootings in schools.

“I think the adults are pushing it down on the kids they’re hanging with,” says Justyce, another 16-year-old Central student.

“(Their) dad probably sitting in the house with a gun on his lap,” adds Diamond, suggesting the common visibility and easy access to guns desensitizes kids. “All kids our age think of nowadays is guns.”

It’s hard to escape, and there’s often no choice.

Twelve-year-old Dequarus’ father was shot after an argument over a kids football game. Dequarius’s mom says the man shot her fiancé right in front of their son, and his own kids.

Since then, Dequarius has also lost an uncle. “He was shot by some kids.”

Patrice Fuller stands next to her son Dequarius in a park. Both are wearing orange t-shirts that say "Stop the silence. Kap gun violence."
Patrice Fuller and her 12-year-old son Dequarius attend the Wear Orange Event in Bronson Park where they shared the story of losing his father to gun violence.

The cycle of youth violence is self-sustaining. It’s an ultimate power tool, as useful as a Swiss Army Knife, a one-size-fits-all solution to every problem that feels like the worst problem ever. The fix enters young minds, still developing, leading with emotion and reaction.

Fourteen-year-old Jaide attends school virtually and doesn’t interact in-person with many kids her own age. She often sees tensions rise between other teens on social media, where threats of gun violence are made online and can lead to in-person retaliation.

“People posting on Facebook … fighting back and forth and getting mad at each other,” says Jaide, “posting what they are going to do to each other.”

Jaide says she thinks past trauma could be part of the problem, including problems at home leading to anger and pent-up aggression.

Fifteen-year-old Dillon lost his friend after she was caught in the crossfire late one night at Big Bend Apartments in Kalamazoo Township. Dillon remembers getting the call that she had been shot – just two minutes after they parted ways on their way home from a party.

“If I would have walked her (home), it could have been me who got shot, and then I wouldn’t be here anymore,” he says.

Dillon, a Black teenager, stands the middle of Bronson Park. His facial expression is pensive. He wears a bright orange shirt that reads "Stop the violence. Kap gun violence."
Fifteen-year-old Dillon remembers his friend, a 16-year-old girl, who he lost to gun violence when they parted ways on their walk home two years ago.

The ever-looming threat of gun violence affects these kids’ daily patterns and greatly reduces the number of places where they feel safe.

“I hear a lot of gunshots, like, every three days, where I stay at,” says Dequarius. Playing outside is a risk he rarely is willing to take, a childhood past-time snatched away just in time for summer break. “I feel like when I go outside … something’s gonna happen.”

It’s common enough on his street that 9-year-old Zech says he knows what to do when he hears the pops. “There’s a lot of gun shootings sometimes, and sometimes I get scared, but mostly now I just tell my dad about it,” he says. “Usually it’s at night, so I have to tell my dad because he’s sleeping, and he calls the police.”

Two young boys stand in the grass in Bronson Park. One is smiling while the other makes a silly face by pulling down on his lower eyelids.
Brothers Esteven, 11, and Zech, 9, say they hear gunshots so often in their neighborhood they know what to do.

Zech’s older brother, Esteven, was grazed by a bullet at age three, when someone unloaded ten rounds into his house during a Father’s Day celebration.

For teens like Dillon, the growing violence creates a constant worry for his loved ones. “I’m young but I know a lot of younger people,” he says. “My little sister just turned eight a couple days ago, and I would hate to see anything happen to her.”

Gun violence has forced children in Kalamazoo to grow up fast, as they think daily about where to go and what to do to keep themselves alive, let alone how to stop it.

“I think it’s my duty to stand out from that group and tell everybody that whatever is going on is not okay,” says 13-year-old Nufais.

For Justyce this means talking her peers out of committing violence, to “make them rethink what they’re about to do, before you mess up your life.”

Putting an end to gun violence in their community is a lot of responsibility to put on a group of kids not yet old enough to vote.

“We have stuff planned for the future,” says Justyce. “What’s going to happen to our lives?”

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