Magazine: How many people do you know who have been shot?

March 7, 2013

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Mark Hummels was shot in a Phoenix office building on Jan. 30. He died the next day. Hummels was a lawyer mediating a legal dispute between his client, Steven Singer, and Arthur Harmon, an independent contractor. Harmon brought a gun to the meeting and shot and killed Hummels and Singer and wounded a woman. He then drove to a parking lot and killed himself.

Roger Hartley, a friend of Hummels’s, was asked to write an appreciation of him for the Tucson Weekly. Hartley, a political science professor who lives in Asheville, N.C., was thinking about what to write when he realized that with Hummels’s death, he knew nine people who had been killed or injured by guns. He decided to post that on Facebook and ask his friends: “Please answer how many people you have known (people you’ve talked to) who have been the victims of gun violence? Suicide, accidental, murder… otherwise. No politics. … No judgment. Just a number.”

Almost immediately, friends began to respond. Colleagues. Former students. Childhood chums. Within a day, he had more than 60 responsesof people sharing their number. Three. Five. Zero. Two.

“I was blown away,” Hartley says. There were people he had been friends with for years without knowing they had been victims of gun violence. His number went up to 13.

As I read through the postings, I realized how lucky I was that my number is only one: Mark Hummels. Mark and I went to graduate school together at the University of California at Berkeley. Mark was a friendly guy with an easy smile who managed to be hardworking and laid-back all at once. He left behind a wife, two children and many, many friends.¶

I decided to take Hartley’s question to people around Washington. About half the people I spoke with said their number was zero and they felt fortunate. Others revealed numbers reaching into three digits. For some, the number changed as they started thinking back, remembering incidents they had long put out of mind.

Here are some of the experiences of nine Washington area residents (portraits taken by Matt Girard):

NUMBER: 250+
Tony Lewis Jr., 32
Washington // Community activist, Washington

My uncle Tyrone was killed in ’93. My cousin Scoop committed suicide in ’97. My cousin John John was killed in 2004. My cousin Alan was killed in 2008. That’s just my family. With friends, the list just goes on. It’s truly commonplace. To be honest with you, I can’t give an exact number. Especially if you’re talking about being killed and/or shot by guns.

In these type of communities where I was born or raised, being shot, people dying of gun violence is as normal as rooting for the Redskins. It truly is a way of life. It’s something that unfortunately, early on in life, you come to terms with. And that’s especially a reality for people who were born and raised in D.C. in my era. I was born in 1980. The crack epidemic. Being the murder capital. And what those years did was create a culture of violence that no matter how minute or serious the issue, it ended in some form of gun violence.

You see your friends with their brains blown out. So it’s interesting when you hear about these mass shootings. The Sandy Hooks and even back to Columbine, Aurora, when congresswoman Giffords got shot. You see the rest of America taking on something that urban America has already been forced to deal with. Maybe not a mass shooting, but if 30 people in your community, in a few square blocks, get shot in a year, you know?

Sometimes I feel that the only people that can relate to us are soldiers, people who’ve been in a war. You talk about post-traumatic stress disorder and things like that; I think a lot of that goes undiagnosed in places like Washington, D.C.; Chicago; L.A. The weapons out here people don’t understand. Assault rifles, AK-47s, AR-15s, MAC-10s, TEC-9s. Or they’ve got .40-caliber handguns with 30-round clips on them. That’s no exaggeration. It’s out there.

I think about the guys I grew up with. A lot of the violence that goes on, it’s not strangers. It’s people that you know. You know the victim and the offender. You lose the victim and the offender, as well; that’s your friend, too.

My little cousin Alan got killed in ’08. That was probably the hardest, because I’m an only child, so he was more like a brother. At the time I was 28. I felt like we were past that age. For him to get killed, it really did something to me. It was the most pain I ever felt. I wanted to know who was responsible. I wanted whoever did it to be held accountable. They never found out who killed him.

When all that violence is going on, it’s not about thinking it’s okay. Your thing is to strategize how to not get shot. You’re trying to make it through the day. You can lose your humanity in an environment like that. People become cold, and it’s not a choice. You have to become that way to continue. I’ve seen the generation before me die and go to jail. I’ve seen my generation die and go to jail. I’m watching the generation behind me die and go to jail. These kids that I watched grow up, now they’re going to jail or dying as young men.

NUMBER: 1
Aurora Vasquez, 44
Washington // Co-executive director,Tenants and Workers United, Alexandria

I have seven older sisters, and most of them have children. And we have raised the nephews and nieces very collaboratively. My niece Elisa was one of the ones who, since I actually lived with her parents for a while, I had some participation of the day-to-day raising of her, as well as her siblings. We were incredibly excited for Elisa when she made the decision to go to college. It was an exciting moment for our family to see another one going off to college and everything that signifies.

In the fall of 2009, she was going back to school to start her sophomore year. She was 19. I remember that when her father was driving up to school, she posted on her Facebook page how excited she was to see her friends, her books and her boyfriend. We started a conversation back and forth on that post. I said she could keep her friends and the books, but I wasn’t sure about the boyfriend. And I had never met him; I just said that jokingly because she’s my niece. She said she should keep the boyfriend, because he makes her read the books.

October 8th, 2009, I got a call from one of my sisters, and that’s how I found out. What you want to believe most immediately is that it was a mistake. That somebody is confused. That it’s not her. But what they shared with me is that they had found her body in the car and that she’d been shot. Then the details started to come out, and that’s when we learned that it was the same boyfriend that she’d been talking to me about a few weeks earlier.

What we learned was that a few days before, they had broken up. It appears he got out of the car and went to the trunk, where he had at least one gun. And she was sitting in the passenger seat still strapped in with her seat belt. He walked around to the passenger side of the car, and he shot in through the window. He shot her in the leg at least once. And then after that, he shot her in the head. That was the last shot. And then he went into his mother’s house and into his bedroom and shot himself.

You think about so many things in that situation. We prepare our children and have big dreams for them. You try to teach them along the way to be safe and make wise decisions. And we just never dreamed that all of this steering and coaching we did all her life to steer her to college and all the fanfare we had when she went off to college, that we would be in that situation.

My family is now at a place where you operate day to day, and you have your moments of happiness and laughter, because that’s in many ways what life and living is about. But rest assured that this kind of sorrow, it’s the kind of sorrow that quite literally settles into your bones. And it never goes away. And nothing is ever the same.

NUMBER: 3
Keneth Howard, 68
Temple Hills // Operations manager, Office of the State Superintendent of Education, Washington

My father was just going to his car on Belmont Street. He was a retired postal supervisor. A guy tried to rob him. My father was a World War II veteran, so he had a different mind-set. You come after me, you better bring it. He fought the guy, and in the fight, the guy threw him down and shot him in the back, and the bullet went from the back into the brain. He stayed alive for 30 days, but there was nobody home. It was a blessing when he passed.

I was pissed off. Here was a guy who hadn’t done anything, and you just take it upon yourself to kill him? And you’ve got this anger, but who do you take it out on? There was a convenient story from the police department that the guy who killed him was later killed. I don’t know.

And there was a guy that I would consider a really close friend, Carnell Joyner. This was early in my career in District government. I was working at Washington Technical Institute, which was a precursor of UDC. He was at work on campus. He was coming down the stairs and was shot to death coming back from lunch. On campus. Senseless.

My cousin was shot twice. He lived and changed his ways until overconfidence killed him on a motorcycle.

The program that we run here, we get about 7,000 to 8,000 kids apply each year. We’ve had some of those kids killed when they went to college. One of the kids we sent off to Delaware State several years back was killed. The recent fatality over at Bowie State involved one of our kids. It’s like there’s no escape. No matter what you do, no matter how much you pray, no matter how many cures you implement, it seems to be a sign of moral decay in society. It almost makes you wonder if we need to nuke the place and start over because somewhere along the line we have lost our way.

NUMBER: 10
Pat McGuire, 60
Washington // President of Trinity Washington University, Washington

Blessedly, my personal family has not been touched in any way, and I’m grateful for that. My experience with gun violence comes through my students at Trinity over the years who have had friends or relatives who have been shot. In many cases, the people who they’ve seen shot are very close to them. Sometimes it’s a father shooting a mother. I have had students who have seen their mother murdered in front of their eyes.

The one that happened most recently to one of our students was the case of the young lady getting on the Metro bus in Southeast D.C. with her baby, and her boyfriend shot her to death. Well, that was the sister of one of my students. What do you do for a young student who has had this happen to her sister? You reach out to her. You make mental health services available to her. You make campus ministry and spiritual support available. But we can’t change the conditions of the neighborhood they live in.

A shooting on campus is my greatest fear. With each school shooting incident somewhere else, I feel that the stakes are higher and higher all the time. Campus security is a big issue, so when you have a Virginia Tech, all of us had to go through all kinds of rethinking. But Virginia Tech was an anomaly, just like Newtown was an anomaly. Although these things are becoming more commonplace. I think the idea of street crime and people just walking around with guns in the city is not an anomaly. I think that’s more commonplace, and so we have to guard against that. One of my jobs becomes assuring people that we take as many measures as we can to keep our school secure without becoming a police state.

NUMBER: 1
E. Ethelbert Miller, 62                                                                                             Washington // Poet and director of Howard University’s African American Studies Resource Center, Washington

Janet Gaillard was a very talented visual artist. She was one of a group of visual artists on Howard’s campus in the 1970s. She would design the fliers for some of my poetry readings, and she also wrote poetry, and I would encourage her writing. Every now and then we’d get something to eat. In fact, I called her the Pecan Pie Lady, because we would go over to Columbia Station and get our pecan pie. That was like our ritual. When you have that sort of intimate relationship, and it’s suddenly taken from you, it leaves a definite hole in you.

On a Friday afternoon, I said goodbye to Janet. She was walking across the Howard campus, and I looked back at her, and that was the last time I saw her. On Monday, I was in my office, and one of our mutual friends came up and said, “No more Janet.” This was how the news had traveled. There weren’t any cellphones back then.

She was shot and killed in front of her house at night. Nothing was stolen. It wasn’t an assault. And they never found the person who did it.

I remember thinking: I don’t want to go to the funeral. I don’t want this to be the way I remember Janet. It was the first funeral where I was the pallbearer. I had the white gloves on. You see the funeral from a different perspective. I had never really carried someone to their grave.

NUMBER: 3
Vincent Gray, 70
Washington // Mayor, Washington

I had a very good friend when I was growing up. We delivered newspapers together. He was a good friend, but he really didn’t have direction in his life. He dropped out of school. One night he was at the Coco Club, which was at Eighth and H Northeast. A guy walked in and spat in his drink. My friend got up and followed him out. When he came out through the door, the guy was waiting there and shot him right in the middle of the head. The speculation is that it was a hit, but they never caught the guy who did it. This was horrific for me. There’s just the horror of someone you know being killed.

In another incident, my father kept a gun in the house. My parents went out, and my older brother James, who loved anything mechanical, got the gun out and was cleaning it. I was probably 7 or 8. And I was watching him clean it, standing right next to him. I left the room to go to the bathroom and heard a BOOM. I guess there was still a bullet in the chamber, and the gun went off. It went right through furniture and the wall right next to where I had been standing. I guess the Lord decided it wasn’t my time. Neither of us were hurt, but of course, my parents went apoplectic when they got home.

NUMBER: 75-100
Nikki Mattocks, 37
Montgomery Village // Medical office worker, Chevy Chase, Md.

My brother was shot multiple times back in the ’90s in D.C. He survived. Back in those days, there were a lot of turf wars going on. And I’ve lost maybe about 25 to 30 cousins to the streets of D.C. And my husband’s brother got killed over on Kenilworth Avenue. Between family and friends, I’ve probably known 75 to 100 people that lost their life to the streets. I’m quite sure my husband knows more than that.

The one that hurt me the most was when I lost my father to a stray bullet April 11, 1996. My dad, his name was Cleo Jackson, was on his way to church on a Sunday afternoon. He was walking down 11th Street near Park Road. These guys, I guess they was beefing; I don’t know. My dad was walking by the barber shop, and a guy in the alley came out with an AK-47 and started shooting. He hit my dad twice.

I was about 20, and I’ll never forget it. They took away my best friend. He preached nonviolence, and for him to get killed like that, that hurts. You lose your father before you get married. He never met his grandsons, and that’s all he ever wanted. He was very into the neighborhood. In the summertime, he used to go down to the park and bring his grill down there and cook for all the kids. Remembering that, I just think about what my kids have missed out on.

My husband and I have five boys and a girl. We moved out here so they didn’t have to experience some of the things that we did coming up in the city. We moved out for their education. I wanted my boys to experience something different than listening to gunshots. When I hear about the senseless shootings, what I think about is: How are they getting the guns? Where are they coming from? I’m just grateful that my boys haven’t had to experience anything like that. I worry about my kids, but I also talk to them. It’s very important that you talk to your kids and keep them aware. I always tell them, “If you feel something is not right, always follow your gut instincts, because that may save your life.”

NUMBER: TOO MANY
Mary Jayne Ledgerwood, 54
The Plains // Priest in charge, Grace Episcopal Church, The Plains

Mary-Marguerite Kohn was co-rector at St. Peter’s in Ellicott City. In May of last year, a man who frequented their food pantry, and who she knew, came in around 5 in the afternoon. There was an altercation of some kind, and he shot Mary-Marguerite and the woman who was also working in the office. They were both killed. The man left the building and went into a nearby wood and killed himself.

I met Mary-Marguerite when we were Episcopal priest colleagues in the diocese of Maryland. Everybody knew her as a lovely person.

My reaction was multifold. Initially, I grieved a lot for an incredible colleague. A beautiful priest. A person who was loving and caring. My second reaction was trying to find answers. And then finally I had to figure out: How am I going to take this and help my congregation make sense of it and then continue my ministry and not be afraid? In our church, here in The Plains, I really am the shepherd of a flock in all the senses of the word. It’s my responsibility to care for them in every way and for people who are in need as well, who are within and without of the parish.

I think one of the most powerful things anyone can do is pray, no matter what denomination. We prayed for the children who were killed at Newtown, but we prayed also for the man who shot everyone and his mother. A lot of lists were going around with just the children on it, but our parish prayed for them all. There’s just no doubt about it: The man who instigated all of that was ill. And that’s what the church can do. The church can pray and encompass all of God’s children.

NUMBER: 6
Scott Duke, 31
Washington // Information management officer, Department of the Army, Office of the Chief of Legislative Liaison, Arlington

In 2008 on February the 2nd, I was in the parking lot of the police station in Franconia, and a gentleman came flying into the parking lot in his vehicle. He got out and walked over to my car and put a handgun to my left temple. And then he recognized that a person was with me, in the parking lot, so he turned and shot him twice, and then he

turned back to me. I was in protective mode at that point. I was bent over in my car and holding my arm up. He shot me through my left arm and then into my chest. The bullet went between two ribs and passed in front of my heart by about an eighth of an inch. Then he turned around and shot my friend three additional times on the ground.

I had no connection to this guy whatsoever. He didn’t know me; I didn’t know him. But he had a history of psychological problems. The guy got sentenced to prison in 2010. He had shot a third person before shooting me and my buddy. He shot this gentleman 30 minutes prior to shooting us at an intersection in Alexandria. Just got out of his car, walked up to the taxi and shot him five times. Luckily, the guy was fortunate enough to live. We all survived.

The bullet is now lodged in my sternum. You’d have to completely open the sternum to retrieve the bullet. I still have a lot of pain in my chest, especially if I want to work out. I go through periods where I just want to have it taken out, because I feel like that’s going to disconnect me from the shooting. Of course, it would cost me a tremendous amount of money to go through surgery and do this. But the other risk that I have is that I would get cancer over a period of time from leaving it in. So I really have a decision to make.

After the shooting, I went to a lot of therapy. I dived into alcohol use. It was kind of a coping mechanism for me. So I had to struggle with alcohol after that. I went through a lot of self-help programs to try and get me through some of these things. But I don’t think I really dealt with it 100 percent, because when this incident in Newtown occurred, it just frightened me, and it hit home very hard. I was with my partner, and we were driving out to have Christmas pictures done when we heard this, and I just started crying in the car. And then I started evaluating all those emotions that were attached. So it’s not something that you get over at all.

Joe Heim is an articles editor in the Magazine.

For more articles, visit WP Magazine.

Joe Heim is an editor and writer for The Washington Post magazine where he writes Just Asking, a weekly Q&A column. He has recently written about candy, not saving for your kids for college, Downton Abbey, the role of presidents as consolers-in-chief and about Washingtonians personal experiences with gun violence.
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