I was stunned into something approaching silence the other night as I listened to the audience at a community group meeting in New Haven rage about gun violence. I was the defense lawyer paired with a state and a federal prosecutor to talk to those assembled. Guns are bad news, I said. Get caught with one and there often is little I can do. I railed against mandatory minimum sentences and the loss of hope for those convicted and their families.
The audience was sympathetic, but what they wanted to rail about was how easy it is for their children to get guns. "It’s easier to buy a gun than candy in most of the city," one mother of three complained. Folks wanted to know why we do not hold gun sellers accountable for the deaths guns cause.
New Haven’s David Strollo and I tried to explain some of the law’s basics: Every crime requires a prohibited act and a culpable mental state. A salesman isn’t guilty of murder, even as an accessory, unless he knows or should have known about the murderous intent of the shooter. The problem with most murders, especially those committed by teens, is that they are committed in a moment of anger or rage. That might be foreseeable as a matter of public health, but epidemiology isn’t jurisprudence. Strict liability is not a legal theory supporting prosecution for crimes of violence, at least not yet.
The folks at the Stetson Library on Dixwell Avenue in New Haven would have it otherwise, I suspect. They told stories of white boys selling their parents’ guns in the inner city to purchase drugs from black children. They are scared for their children, who, when armed, strut the streets with guns instead of book bags. In the three days prior to the Stetson meeting, nine people were shot on the streets of New Haven. We’re talking nine people in a small town.
Why was a young man from an adjoining suburb only sentenced to 18 months for selling three guns he stole from his parents? These folks wanted blood, but in this case, the blood they wanted was that of the salesman, the guy who sells lethal weapons to their kids and then skedaddles back across city lines to the comparative safety of white world.
This was a group that did not want to hear about the Second Amendment. No one is arming a well-regulated militia in the inner city; increasingly younger kids are grabbing guns and settling with bullets what used to be solved with fists. These permanent solutions to the ordinary friction associated with growing up and learning to live together is destroying the lives of victims, their families, and those of defendants and their families. We’re imprisoning children from decades and calling it justice.
Marc Silverman, from the Justice Department, talked to the audience about choices, the choices kids make to possess and then use guns. I listened to Silverman but his words fell flat. I recalled a night when I was 14. My mother’s boyfriend had beaten a local drug dealer badly with a baseball bat in Detroit. We got a call that the dealer’s friends were coming over to even the score. This bat-wielding vigilante sat in the front of our duplex in bushes armed with a pistol; he told me to guard the back of the house with a rifle. I sat staring out my bedroom window terrified. I would have shot anyone who entered, even though I was hoping the if there was to be a death, it would take place in the front of the house, and that this man who brought violence into my life would be killed himself. Query: Did I choose to arm myself? In a manner of speaking. Had I killed, would I have been regarded a murderer? I was simply terrified.
The reality of guns and kids is far more complex than mere matters of choice. Children, even young adults, research shows, don’t have the sort of judgment that makes it possible for them to evaluate things the same way as adults do. If we are going to get serious about gun violence it makes far less sense to slaughter the semi-capable with long mandatory minimum sentences. Loathe though I am ever to suggest new penalties, the anger, fear and outright rage I saw in New Haven the other night persuaded me that tough new laws against the illegal sale of guns just might be appropriate. But, of course, that begs the question of what we should do about kids selling guns to kids.
There’s blood on the streets in the town of New Haven, and frightened parents want answers now. I can’t say that I blame them; summer has not even begun, and already the body count is climbing.
Reprinted courtesy of the Connecticut Law Tribune.