Where Do Kids Get Guns? Inmates Reveal How Easy It Is
This article and others forthcoming on this topic are being produced as part of a project for the University of Southern California Center for Health Journalism’s National Fellowship, in conjunction with the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
Other stories in this series include:
Even before the mass shooting at a video-game competition that left three people dead and 11 wounded, Jacksonville was in shock.
Another shooting. This one as a crowd left a high school football game. One man was dead; two youths were wounded.
“This suspect is a 16-year-old male,” Sheriff Mike Williams said when announcing the boy’s arrest, punctuating each word. “Think about that for a minute. He’s 16.
“I mean, that’s incredible. That’s unbelievable. As a community we need to stop and think about that.
“Where do we get to the point where a 16-year-old male thinks it’s OK to murder someone in cold blood at a football game? A high school football game?”
As Duval County teenagers have been arrested at alarming rates for their suspected involvement in homicides — 23 in the last five fiscal years — Williams’ lament has become a common one.
The Aug. 24 shooting outside Raines High School came on the heels of other high-profile cases involving teens, guns and death.
A 17-year-old boy was arrested in connection with a shootout that killed a 7-year-old girl. Two other young men were sentenced to life in prison for their involvement in a 2016 drive-by killing of a toddler, back when the two were still minors.
How did teens in shootouts become so normal? Why does this keep happening in our city? And where are these kids getting guns?
The reality is this: Guns are plentiful on the streets in many Jacksonville communities.
In the last five years, there has been a 73-percent increase in juvenile arrests in Duval County for weapons possession, according to the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice. There were 121 arrests in Duval in 2016-17, up from 70 in 2012-13.
Duval County Public Schools had 12 reported incidents involving guns on campuses out of 35 total weapons-related incidents, according to the Florida Department of Education School Environmental Safety Incident Report for 2016-17, the latest year for which data is available. Five years earlier, Duval reported 22 weapons incidents with seven of those involving firearms.
To learn more, the Times-Union analyzed elements of its research conducted as a part of an ongoing examination of juveniles who commit homicide. The newspaper has exchanged letters with more than 50 Florida inmates from Duval County convicted of a murder or manslaughter they committed as minors. Many of these people wrote letters with their stories. Two-dozen agreed to take an extensive survey about their home, school and academic life growing up, as well as the crimes that landed them in prison.
Among those 24 survey respondents, 16 said guns were used in their crimes.
One man’s offense dates back to 1973; another’s is as recent as 2015. But over the decades one thing has not changed: the remarkable ease with which teens can get their own guns on the streets of Jacksonville.
Tamarius Bowes, now 24, was 17 when he shot into a crowd at Beverly Hills Park just south of the Trout River, killing a 23-year-old man and wounding a 9-year-old boy in the leg. Bowes, like several other respondents, said in the survey that he bought his gun on the streets for his own safety. He doesn’t remember how much he paid for it.
“We carry guns because everybody carry guns and leaving your safety to the police that don’t even come in certain neighborhoods or is not always in the right place at the right time can end up with you dead,” Bowes wrote from Santa Rosa Correctional Institution, where he’s serving a 20-year sentence. “And who wants to die young?
“But that’s exactly what we’re doing. The next kid doesn’t care if you’re armed or not.”
Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office Assistant Chief Scott Dingee, head of the crimes against persons section, said that there is a degree of legitimacy to some kids believing that they need guns. Many of them grew up seeing guns carried around regularly, he said.
“You live in a neighborhood where there’s gunfire, and your friends have been shot and you know people who were ... it breeds that mentality,” Dingee said. ” ‘Well, nobody was protecting me so I need to protect myself.’
“And then they frequently start to carry guns.”
LIKE BUYING CANDY
Half an hour after Williams announced the arrest of the 16-year-old suspect in the Raines shooting, Kids Hope Alliance CEO Joe Pepperssat down with the Times-Union editorial board to discuss the future of the city’s children’s services council.
Peppers said the issue of programming for teens is critical, and it’s one that has to be resolved by next summer. To not do so, he said, would be “negligent.”
Peppers had just met with a youth group at a church. He said he was “really taken aback” by what he heard.
″‘We can get a gun anywhere. We don’t even have to buy a gun,’” Peppers said the kids told him. “They said it’s as easy to get a gun as it is a bag of Skittles.”
The juvenile offenders surveyed by the Times-Union back up what those kids told Peppers.
Some of their cases go back decades, while others were within the last few years. But the ease with which these teens got their guns hasn’t changed.
Of the guns used by the 16 survey respondents:
- six were stolen
- six were bought on the street
- four were borrowed from someone they knew.
“It was my cousin weapon,” said Jeremiah Hill, who is serving 40 years for a first-degree murder committed when he was 13. “He told me to scare the victim with it.”
“It was stolen from the home of a friend,” Connor Pridgen answered. Pridgen, 25, was 16 when he and a 17-year-old friend killed a classmate.
“Bought off the street,” wrote Felton Aikens. Aikens and a friend were robbing a Burger King when police shot and killed his friend. Florida law allows Aikens to be charged with murder as a result. “Really not sure the price due to my friend did the buying.”
Tony Brown is now 61 and serving time for a 1981 armed robbery he committed as an adult. But as a 16-year-old in 1974, he caught a second-degree murder charge. Brown, like teens today, said he took his weapon from another crime he’d committed.
“Guns are easy to get in hands of these kids,” Brown wrote to the Times-Union. “They are bigger and more powerful than the guns I had, and once he or she feel the power he or she has just by pointing it at someone, nothing else will feel the same. ... A gun in a kid’s hand is a powerful thing.”
GUNS IN SCHOOLS
Survey data collected in a joint effort by multiple state agencies indicates kids in Duval County may be taking guns to school far more often than they’re getting caught.
The Florida Youth Substance Abuse Survey is given annually to tens of thousands of middle and high school students across the state. In addition to asking about substance abuse, it also asks kids about other risky and delinquent behaviors, including guns.
Between 2006 and 2016, on average:
- 1.35 percent of surveyed school kids in Duval County said they’ve taken a handgun to school, higher than the average in any other large county statewide.
- 6.18 percent of surveyed Duval kids said they’ve carried a handgun, also higher than the average in any other large county statewide.
- 42 percent of Duval high school students perceive that they have access to handguns, higher than most other large counties, including Miami-Dade, Broward, Hillsborough and Orange.
Those numbers may not be surprising considering that the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office has received reports of more than 1,300 guns stolen from unlocked cars alone in about two-and-a-half years.
Police say that’s the most common way illegal guns make it onto the streets.
In 2017, 563 guns were reported stolen from unlocked vehicles, according to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. There were 597 the year before. As of May 2, the Sheriff’s Office had received reports of 145 guns being stolen from unlocked vehicles.
Police say once those guns are gone, they’re not going to be used for above-board reasons.
Dingee said if he could ask one thing of the community, he’d “beg” everyone not to leave guns in their cars.
“We have videos of kids, where — they call it car surfing — three, four, five kids, go to a neighborhood ... and they’re literally just walking down the street at 2 in the morning, 3 in the morning, pulling car doors,” Dingee said. “And as soon as they find a car door that’s unlocked, they go in and they take whatever is there.”
Tamarius Bowes, the inmate who asked, “who wants to die young?” said killing wasn’t a big deal to him and his friends. It was unavoidable.
“We heard about it; we witnessed it,” he wrote. “Some of our own family falling victim to it. One killing led to another killing that led to another killing for retaliation of the initial.
“And the cycle goes on and on.”
Brown-eyed Heidy Rivas Villanueva had just ridden along with her father and 2-year-old sister to drop off her mother at the popular El Tapatio store in a busy shopping center on 103rd Street.
Before her father could even park the family car, gunfire erupted nearby.
Police later explained there had been a gun sale arranged under the guise of a robbery nearby, and the robbery had gone wrong.
Thirteen shell casings were recovered at the scene.
One of the bullets, fired in rapid succession, had struck 7-year-old Heidy in the head.
Though police believe a 19-year-old man was likely the shooter, police have arrested five people on charges relating to the girl’s murder.
The youngest is 17-year-old Trevonte Montie Phoenix, who was picked up four days after the shooting. Phoenix has been charged with second-degree felony murder, possession of a firearm by a juvenile delinquent, armed burglary and armed robbery for his role.
He has entered not guilty pleas on all charges.
Caught in the two-months-long war between Jacksonville street gangs Problem Child Entertainment and the 187 gang was a 22-month-old child.
Two teenage gang members were gunning for a rival — the toddler’s uncle — in drive-by shooting on the city’s Eastside on Jan. 29, 2016.
Toddler Aiden McClendon was sitting in his car seat with his mother and great-grandmother when his tiny body was struck by three bullets.
Henry Lee Hayes and Kquame Riguan Richardson — 16 and 17, respectively, at the time of the shooting — were found guilty in the child’s death this July.
On Aug. 23, a judge decided they should both spend life behind bars, with no chance of release until after 25 years had passed.
THE RAINES SHOOTING
The reigning state champions Raines Vikings lost 16-15 to the Lee Generals in the opening week of the local high school football season on Aug. 24.
The end to the Vikings’ 13-game winning streak wasn’t the top news of the night; it was the gang-related triple-shooting that left 19-year-old former Raines student Joerod Jamel Adams dead just outside the stadium.
Two other teens — a 17-year-old male Raines student who is a friend of the deceased and a 16-year-old female Lee student who was not an intended target — were struck by bullets but survived.
Police said several fights broke out in the stands during the game, and it is believed that the suspect’s attempt to finish one of those fights that led to the shooting. To get into the stands, there was metal detection and security; the nearby sidewalks weren’t restricted.
On Tuesday, police arrested 16-year-old Robert Howard in the triple-shooting after witnesses identified him.
The Grand Park Education Center student is charged with one count of murder and two counts of attempted murder.
[This story was originally published by Florida Times-Union.]