guns, horns

10 11 2008

I work at a high school in the Recovery School District in New Orleans. I love my job, for the most part, but I am every day emotionally stretched thin by how quickly my students have had to grow up. There is a boy who sits in the Academic Resource Room with me during my planning period and quietly browses New Orleans murder blogs. You can’t get him to go to class. We’ve called in disciplinarians, other teachers, his parents, you name it, but he always comes back, privately researching real-time death. When I asked him about it — why he looks at these every day, what he is trying to find — he told me that he was looking for the names or stories of friends he’d lost in gang incidents or battles of ambiguous turf. And I thought, “No wonder you don’t want to go to class.”

And that’s pretty typical. All the students here have lost someone too early. Drugs, fighting, Katrina, you name it. But mostly, the stories you hear are about guns.

New Orleans is gun-happy. Before I moved here I had never actually seen a gun — even when I went to the homes of proud hunters. In Portland, having an automatic is like having a zombie locked up in your basement: so ludicrously dangerous it’s absurd. But now I’ve seen several. They’re on peoples’ shelves in their homes; they’re in the passenger seats of cars; people take them everywhere. Guns are treated less like zombies and more like precious babies.

Any time a gun is mentioned in a piece of literature or in a movie at school, my students are quick to call out factual inconsistencies (“He’s shooting that wrong; a semi-automatic is always a double-action only”) — but they’ll believe you if you tell them 2 + 2 is 5. Gun toting is a rite of passage. Forget buying porn and cigarettes (or registering to vote) — your eighteenth birthday is marked by your first legal gun purchase in the state of Louisiana.

There was a brief period following Hurricane Katrina when the city tried to disarm the entire population. You can imagine how well that went over with 2nd Amendment activists. Here, you don’t need a permit to purchase a weapon (although you do need one to carry it in public).

As the number gunshot homicides creeps up every day, I find myself scared to walk around at night — something I’ve never been before. I find myself terrified to answer my phone when another teacher is calling because I don’t want it to be bad news. I can’t imagine what it’s like for the kids who have to live through it every day. But still, no one seems to want to change the law. Kids and adults I talk to argue passionately that they need firearms to protect themselves. “If someone came into my house and tried to get at my family, I wouldn’t want to be caught without a gun,” a student told me last Friday as he was leaving school. Doesn’t he see that the lax attitude with which we treat weapons is causing a city-wide warzone?

There’s no obvious solution. But James Morris of the musician’s advocacy group Sweet Home had a thought.

After Katrina, he proposed to provide musical instruments for anyone who would trade in a gun, no questions asked. He knew it would be difficult to implement, but when the NOPD and a bevy of churches signed on, the project was officially green lighted. Dubbed “Horns for Guns,” community members gained interest:

Musicians signed on. Roots of Music founder and drummer Derrick Tabb joined the effort. Tulane medical students volunteered to conduct health screenings and stress tests for adults. Jim Belfon, a local photographer, agreed to take on a dozen or so interested children as students. The group YA/YA (Young Aspirations/Young Artists) offered to provide art instruction to other teenagers who might stop by.

It didn’t really work. The event, which took place last week took in only about a dozen guns, mostly from people who had “extras” lying around their homes.

Still, the notion is romantic. What if, instead of violence, there was music? Art? Revelry? What a world that would be.

But that’s not the world we live in. Since Obama’s election, gun sales have skyrocketed nationwide, as folks fear that the “gun-snatching” elect will pull the trigger on lax laws. Frankly, I think that would be great, but Obama has a lot on his plate, and he’s currently concerned with reaching across the aisle as far as he can in an effort to “unite” the country.

And last night I went to New Orleans’ “Battle of the High School Marching Bands.” It was in City Park. The attendance was 99.99 percent black. Throughout the show, MCs hailed Obama, hailed America, and issued long-winded pleas to end the violence in New Orleans.

Then someone came out with a gun. Everyone started running, like it was to be expected. As I was heading for my car in the shuffle, a little girl (as if on some cliched cue) screamed at her mom, “I DON’T EVER WANT TO GO TO ANOTHER BATTLE OF THE BANDS AGAIN.”

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