MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — The president, lawmakers and the National Rifle Association (NRA) are all fighting for their views on gun control; in fact, the only voice that you will not hear is that of gangs. Mint Press brings the voice of battle-hardened gang members who literally fear they would die without a gun. “It’s a way of life, if you don’t have it (a gun) then you know you’re fucked. There’s always someone’s coming for you. I need to know I can take care of a situation,” said gang member Tinie.
Tinie is a part of a North Minneapolis gang — he, like many young African-American men in gangs, live their lives on the streets. In this world, gang members smoke and trade drugs and develop territorial patches where they can control the money made from drugs and stop other gangs from taking the trade. It may be a foreign world for many young men, but for Tinie, it’s the only world he recognizes.
Gang life has become his family, his life and he believes probably his death. “I know it — someone’s got a bullet for me, that just the way.” Despite his young age of 17, Tinie has been involved in gangs for nearly five years and during this time he’s seen gang members holed (shot), he said. “When you see it for the first time, someone die, you feel so angry that you have to let it out — and get the people who did it, now I don’t feel anything any more.”
President Barack Obama has praised Minneapolis for its progressive measures on gun control. He sees the city’s “common sense” gun control as a model the rest of the states should follow. The president is pushing for a bill to renew the 1994 assault weapons ban, limiting ammunition magazines to 10 rounds and to pass universal background checks. But in Tinie’s world, these measures will not make any difference to his way of life.
He looks nonchalantly as he laughs at the law. “The background check don’t apply to us. That’s not how it works. Guns are circulated by different people, from different gangs. So I can get a gun from someone in Brooklyn Park or Cedar-Riverside, or outside (the state) sometimes. I don’t need to go into a shop to buy one. Other people get their girlfriends or a big sister to buy them. The girls are mostly clean, so if the shop checks, there will be no criminal record.”
Showing lots of attitude and bravado, Tinie explains: “Automatic guns are harder to get, but I wouldn’t use them. They are harder to hide, I don’t know people who would use it, so they (the President) can do whatever, cuz it can’t hurt me.”
From Murderapolis to model state
Tinie was too young to remember Minneapolis violent gang warfare of 1995-96 when there was 97 gang-related deaths. Known as Murderapolis, Minneapolis was the leading city for gang-related homicide; now, thanks to the work of youth initiatives, the number of young people injured by guns has decreased by 40 percent. Obama held Minneapolis up as an example of what cities can do to reduce youth violence without passing new gun laws.
“A few years back, you suffered a spike in violent crime involving young people. So this city came together,” Obama said. “You launched a series of youth initiatives that have reduced the number of young people injured by guns.”
Minneapolis youth teams have experienced great success using mentoring strategies for gang members. The mentoring strategy Blueprint for Action has caught President Obama’s attention. Launched nearly five years ago, Blueprint for Action uses mentors to identify issues and intervene at the first signs of trouble, helping youth offenders get back on track and getting young people to reject a culture of violence.
Delivering frontline services to combat gang violence, Sherenia Gibbs, as the supervisor of the Minneapolis Parks Youth Outreach team, told MPN: “The initiative was set up as a public health, not as a crime issue. This is why we’ve had a good success rate. We work with a lot of youth agencies and partners, so the outreach team can identify young people at risk, mentor them and try to reconnect them into caring situations or better a situation where they will not reoffend. Most of the young people in gangs are disconnected from family, church, education — so the only thing that’s left is gangs. So what we do is look at the whole problem. Sometimes that means engaging the youth’s parents in programs of support where they can get help. Or working with local police so that when a young person is caught and is on first offense, that he is not charged, but brought to us, so that he can join a mentor program.”
Minneapolis police also restaffed its juvenile unit which focuses on enforcing curfew and truancy laws. The department has 16 police officers working as liaison officers in more than 70 city schools.
Too many young people are still being lost to gun violence, Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau said. She mentioned the recent deaths of Nizzel George, 5, and Terrell Mayes Jr., 3. Both boys were killed by stray bullets. George’s killer, a teenager, recently pleaded guilty to murder but Mayes death remains unsolved.
Minneapolis lawmakers independently have pursued President Obama’s objective to ban automatic rifles and introduce more stringent background checks on gun owners. According to Harteau: “Access issues are critically important. If people don’t have access to guns; if we can have the ability to keep them out of the hands of people who shouldn’t get them, like convicted felons and others, that’s helpful to the efforts,” Harteau said. “There is no one solution, but all of these things collectively will help us have an impact.”
Harteau was one of 20 people made up of law enforcement, elected officials, activists and gun crime victims who met privately with the president during his recent visit.
Keeping guns out of gangs
Minneapolis has taken huge steps to reduce gang violence with a progressive plan linking up youth support agencies, youth outreach teams and police and juvenile justice workers. But Tinie is living proof that some of these measures will not take guns out of the hands of gangs.
Tinie says: “I don’t see how they can. There are too many guns out there already, what makes them think that some background check is going to make a difference? We already have guns.” Gang members like Tinie are so disconnected from society that the debate about guns seems moot in that environment. The guns that the gangs uses are moved around frequently, on a supply-and-demand basis.
“If a bro needs a gun fast he will call people (sometimes family) from other states or from a different neighborhood. Sometimes it’s delivered by some of the young kids in gangs on their bikes, other times a bro will have to collect it and that’s when the problems starts. If he moves, then he’s a open target.”
This past weekend first lady Michelle Obama joined hundreds of mourners at the Hadiya Pendleton funeral. The teen-age girl was shot and killed about a mile from President Barack Obama’s Chicago home in the Kenwood neighborhood. The Chicago honor student killing again highlighted the need to debate gun violence.
Police say Pendleton was an innocent victim in a gang-related shooting. Michelle Obama met privately with the family and comforted Pendleton’s mother before the service. She put her arm around Cleopatra Pendleton and patted her back as the woman threw her head back and wailed.
Police have said the shooting appears to be a case of mistaken identity involving gang members who believed the park, which is near Lake Michigan and north of the University of Chicago, was their territory. No one has been charged but the police are still investigating the crime.
Pendleton’s death has highlighted Chicago’s homicide rate; in 2012, Chicago recorded 506 homicides. Hadiya Pendleton is another victim caught in a crossfire of gangs. Gang members like Tinie are equally saddened by people being killed by stray bullets. “We don’t think sometimes — it only happens when you are cornered and you’re fighting for your life, things happen fast, you gotta think fast,” he said.
The way forward
NRA lobbyists are still fighting President Obama ideas to reform gun control, and despite the Newtown tragedy, the NRA is spending million to convince Congress to reject any new proposals for gun control. But some lawmakers are addressing the issue of controlling guns in gangs and with convicted criminals. There are skeptics that think banning certain types of weapons and mandating background checks for all weapons sales will not stop the violence.
“Democrats and Republicans in the Senate are working on a bill that would ban anyone from selling a gun to somebody legally prohibited from owning one. That’s common sense,” Obama said. “Senators from both parties have also come together and proposed a bill that would crack down on people who buy guns only to turn them around and sell them to criminals.”
The politics of Washington and its views on the gun debate is a distant world where Tinie shows very little interest. He knows how to survive on the streets and how the law struggles to contain the street violence.
“It (the law) doesn’t apply to me. I don’t think they will ever find out who moves guns around. There are lots of different people who move them around state, from state to state. So I don’t see how they can catch us.”
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