One day at lunch last month, as a joke, Gerald Mooney grabbed a bag of corn chips from a classmate at the District's Eastern High School and ran. He raced upstairs to an empty hallway. Seconds later, the classmate caught up. The teenagers stopped a few feet apart, and for a moment there was silence.

"Then I told him, 'Here's your chips,' " Mooney recalled yesterday from his Southeast Washington home. "But he said, 'Remember the fight we had a while ago? Well, I got something for you.' Then he pulled out a knife.

"He waited a minute, I think to get his ego up, then he stuck the knife in my stomach and ran away."

One week it's a stabbing over a bag of chips, the next it's a shooting to avenge a wrong look or warn a group of junior high students to avoid a certain street corner. Earlier this month, police charged a 14-year-old in the fatal shooting of a lawyer who was killed -- for no apparent reason, police say -- in his car while stopped at a traffic light on Capitol Hill.

And last Wednesday, 15-year-old Jermaine Daniel, a District youth who was befriended by former police chief Maurice T. Turner Jr., was shot and killed by a 14-year-old, his friend and classmate. The two had argued on a playground, apparently over a girl.

Daniel's death was the latest in a series of shootings or slayings recently that have this much in common: The assailants were barely old enough to drive. Drugs or money, two forces that police officials say have driven violence to record heights in the Washington area, had no direct role. And in each case, what might appear to be a slight provocation brought bloodshed or death.

The incidents have raised baffling questions for police, educators and parents who for three years have struggled to prevent a sharp rise in violence among 17- and 18-year-olds, either in the drug trade or fighting over expensive jackets and radios.

Now, they also are facing 13- and 14-year-olds who carry weapons for protection or respect and, when they get neither, invoke a brutal code: shoot first, ask questions later.

"There have always been hotheaded 14-year-olds," said Frederick Phillips, an adolescent psychologist in the District. "Now, they are hotheaded and they have access to deadly weapons."

Police officials say that buying or borrowing handguns in the District has never been easier, despite strict laws against selling or possessing them. In many D.C. neighborhoods and in parts of Prince George's County, the two area jurisdictions hit hardest in the past three years by the rise of a violent drug culture, law enforcement officials said last week that an underground market for weapons is thriving. But no one knows exactly how the guns fall into the hands of children, or why they want them.

The most common theory is that some of the children growing up in settings that have been rife with violent turf battles over drugs have come to believe that guns are a necessary tool for survival, even if they do not have an appetite for using or selling drugs.

"They're easy to get, and some of the guys think they're necessary to have," said George Rutherford, principal of Fletcher-Johnson Educational Center, one of the largest schools in Southeast. Daniel spent two years under Rutherford's eye before transferring to another school last fall.

"Some students say they carry guns on their streets because there's so much violence and they're afraid of getting hurt, but for others it's just to impress a girl or to look like some kind of big shot," Rutherford said.

In the past two years, although D.C. police officials have reported a decline in juvenile drug arrests, a record number of youths have been arrested on weapons or murder charges. This month alone, 13 juveniles have been taken to Children's Hospital with gunshot wounds.

From 1985 to 1988, the peak of the District's drug war, police arrested 58 juveniles on murder charges. In the past two years, they have arrested 123. And since 1985, the number of youths arrested for carrying weapons has doubled. Last year, police confiscated more than 325 weapons from juveniles, and arrested nearly 200 others on weapons charges.

Five of those arrests came just before Christmas in Shaw. A group of junior high students, who police said had been arguing with another group of classmates over neighborhood turf, drove by a corner and sprayed gunfire into a crowd that included children returning home from elementary school.

Four teenagers and a 6-year-old girl were wounded. That night, police arrested the teenage suspects at their homes. They were asleep when officers arrived.

Later, police officials said they learned that after the teenagers had piled into a car with guns and drove in search of their rivals, they suddenly turned back. One of the youths, police said, complained to the others in the car that he had no gun. So they drove him to the home of an older friend, borrowed his gun, then set off again on their mission.

"I don't even think they consider the consequences," one veteran police captain said Friday. "The scariest thing about it is that it really doesn't bother them . . . . They feel it's fashionable. There's no shame."

In neighborhoods in many parts of the area, the sense that an increasing number of juveniles have weapons has brought alarm and confusion. Parents have begun enforcing new rules of conduct for their children. Students say they have decided to avoid arguments or groups that could bring trouble.

The killing of Daniel last week has intensified that anxiety. Little is known about the 14-year-old accused of shooting him outside their apartment complex in Northeast, but in Superior Court last week, police investigators testified that the juvenile confronted Daniel, who was a friend, with a pistol after Daniel threatened to slap his girlfriend.

The juvenile also told police that Daniel, who had been arrested twice on drug charges, also sometimes carried a pistol.

Meanwhile, his death and other recent juvenile violence has left educators and community leaders wondering whether the most common strategies to help keep teenagers away from trouble -- such as mentor groups, after-school programs, even curfews and community patrols -- are enough.

Prince George's County Judge Robert J. Woods, who presides at juvenile hearings, said neither courts nor schools will solve the problem until impoverished neighborhoods receive more help. "If we could change the grass-roots problem, then maybe we could change a lot of things," he said. "But I think it's going to be a long time before we solve that."

Rob Moon, president of the Logan Circle Community Association, said his group intends to establish recreation and academic programs to stem juvenile violence. "We need to have much more contact with younger kids," he said. "We need to keep them from feeling they need a gun to be a man."

In the impoverished Edgewood neighborhood where Daniel lived with his mother, community leader Clifton Johnson said he was not surprised by the shooting. Many juveniles, he said, have spent years watching drug-related violence and now consider it an appropriate way to solve problems.

"That is typical on this kind of block," Johnson said. "I've been here for 10 years, and I'm on the second generation of kids working for the drug man . . . . If we could offer some options, people wouldn't act like animals. But they don't have any options."

D.C. Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon said Friday that Daniel's death was devastating. "It is very painful to watch what is happening to our young people," she said. "Here was a young man who seemed to have some promise."

Dixon attributes the apparent rise in juveniles carrying and using weapons to problems in the city school system, cuts in federal aid for social programs and a lack of parental discipline. She also said she intends to "cajole" officials in Maryland and Virginia, where D.C. police say most weapons they confiscate are bought, to adopt tougher gun laws.

In the meantime, parental and student fears persist. At a basketball game between Dunbar and Roosevelt high schools Friday night, security aides searched everyone entering the gymnasium for weapons. One woman in the bleachers, the mother of a Dunbar student, said she drove her daughter to the game because she is afraid to let her ride the bus at night.

The woman, who asked that her name not be used, said her daughter knows several teenagers who have been shot or stabbed. "She talks about it like it's just something that happens," the mother said. "It's not shocking to her."

Elizabeth Hamilton, a Dunbar teacher who attended the game, said she and others at the school have stepped up efforts to instill in students values that do not include carrying weapons or starting fights over issues like respect.

Outside Cardozo High School in Northwest on Friday, a group of students said they understand the difference between right and wrong -- but still think sometimes they need a gun. "It's rough out here," one of them said. "Everybody is getting robbed. You need it for protection."

Students without guns, they said, must be vigilant not to anger anyone. "When you go to a club, you've got to know how to handle yourself," another student said. "If you bump into somebody, keep going. If you look back, he's going to be looking at you. And then you may have started something."

At Landover Mall in Prince George's County, several teenagers who were browsing spoke of how prevalent weapons have become in their lives.

Two teenagers, LaTanaya Battle and Phillip Richardson, said they see guns often. Sometimes they observe them from a distance, on the street during a drug deal. Other times, people they know show them off.

"I see someone with a weapon every day. I saw one today in school" being carried by another young man who was angry with a teenager "over some girl," Richardson said. He added that he did not report the incident or others like it "because they might go after me."

Battle said she has been held up twice at gunpoint, and that she believes knowledge of weapons is important for her security. "Say someone has a gun that can keep firing," she said. "You know it's going to be hard to get out of there. If they have a revolver or something that can only give one shot, your chances of getting away are a lot better . . . . "

In a display of his weapons savvy, Battle's older brother Carlos, 19, glanced for a few seconds at two mall security guards and said casually, "He is carrying a 9mm Beretta and he is carrying a 9mm Beretta. And two clips."

In Prince George's County schools last year, 122 weapons were confiscated. Most were knives. "For many of our young people, this is the answer to every problem," said Peter Blauvelt, the school system's security director. "I've never had a kid yet who when asked why they were bringing this to school didn't say, 'For protection.' They say, 'I don't need it in school, but it's {for going} to and from school or in my community.' "

In District junior and senior high schools last year, more than 50 students were caught with weapons. Several shootings and stabbings also occurred on or just outside school grounds. Among the most serious was the corn-chip incident that nearly left Gerald Mooney, a senior at Eastern High, dead.

He spent three weeks in the hospital, much of it in critical condition. A scar now stretches across his stomach, and he can barely bend his body. He has just returned to class. His assailant is in police custody. But Mooney is a survivor who speaks with a pensive, weary tone.

"Everything's cool right now," Mooney said. "I'm not having words with anybody in the halls. You just don't know what someone might have on them. And you don't know who might be trying to make a reputation for themselves."

Staff writers Michael Abramowitz, Paul Duggan, Gabriel Escobar, Joel Garreau, Stephanie Griffith, Keith Harriston, Sari Horwitz, Robert F. Howe, Lisa Leff, Linda Wheeler and Debbi Wilgoren contributed to this report.

Smith & Wesson


Caliber: .45

Weight: About 46 ounces

Length: 11 3/8

Features: Available in bright blue or nickel finish; target trigger, target hammer.

History: First manufactured in 1917 for the Army, and used as a sidearm in World War I. No longer manufactured.