The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A 12-year-old wrote his governor to oppose a gun law. A stray bullet killed him on Christmas.

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Before winter break, 12-year-old Artemis Rayford wrote a letter to tell Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee that he opposed a new law reducing restrictions on guns. Before the end of that break, the sixth-grader would be shot and killed by one.

In his letter, Artemis told Lee (R) that his school’s anti-violence initiative with the Memphis Police Department had been discussing a law that went into effect in July, allowing people 21 and older, and military service members 18 and up, to carry a weapon without any training or permit.

He introduced himself as a student at Sherwood Middle School before writing his thoughts about the legislation.

“It is my opinion that this new law will be bad and people will be murdered,” Artemis’s letter said.

Shelby County Schools did not respond to a request for comment Saturday, and it was not clear whether the letter had been sent to Lee. The governor’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday afternoon.

Artemis wouldn’t be around to find out what Lee thought of his letter.

Early Christmas morning, he was shot and killed by a stray bullet that came from outside the Memphis home he shared with his mother and 6-year-old sister.

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When Artemis’s teachers found out about his death, one of them sent his mother a photo of the letter that was addressed to Lee.

His grandmother Joyce Newson, 65, read the letter and was pinched by the irony.

Newson said she hoped the governor would see the letter on local news. She said she wants Artemis’s letter to bring more attention to gun laws, but she doubts that it will.

“The governor hasn’t reached out,” she said. “That’s why it’s only going to be thrown up under the rug.”

Memphis had a record 346 homicides in 2021, with 31 children counted among the deceased, WREG reported. About 150 children were treated for gunshot wounds that year, according to local news outlets.

Sgt. Louis C. Brownlee, a spokesperson for the Memphis Police Department, told The Washington Post that investigators are looking into “this senseless act of violence” and that the department is asking people in the area to submit tips about what they saw that holiday night.

Newson told The Post that her large family gathered on Christmas Eve at her oldest daughter’s home, wearing pajamas.

“It didn’t dawn on me that it would be my last time seeing him,” she said of the boy family members called “Shun.”

She awoke to a call at 2:38 a.m. on Dec. 25 to learn that he had died of a gunshot wound.

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“How did this child [who wrote] this letter about guns end up losing his life over a gun?” she said. “What kind of coincidence is that? That’s powerful to me.”

Newson said her daughter hasn’t returned to the home where Artemis died in her arms. His blood still stains the mattress where he was sitting, playing a new video game he received for Christmas, when a bullet entered his chest and ushered in weeks of grief for his family.

His younger sister, who saw her brother take his final breath, is also “having a hard time” as she struggles to live without Artemis, Newson said.

The grandmother is trying to be the family’s support system as she contemplates a future devoid of trips to Artemis’s football practices, of seeing him perform the latest dances at family gatherings, of telling him how much she hates the smell of the ramen noodles he loved.

Artemis was laid to rest Jan. 8, wearing a blazer with Tennessee Titans insignia and a bow tie bearing the team’s name, Newson said.

She’ll remember him as the grandson who was always active and full of energy, like the last time she saw him on Christmas Eve.

“The last thing I said to Shun was, ‘Shun, stop running in this girl’s house,’ ” she said with a giggle.

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