Rosemary Haskell: Arms and the boys — gun deaths in Durham and the obligations of society 

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 6, 2023

On March 22 in Durham, two 16-year-old boys were shot and killed, and a third 16-year-old was badly hurt. The suspected shooter is an 18-year-old male. Motives remain obscure.
Durham already has 11 shooting victims under 18 in a still-young 2023, the media reports. And the North Carolina legislature has now weakened a key gun regulation. How can we be so foolish and short-sighted? Anger, embarrassment and shame are my competing emotions.
Right now, I’m ashamed of our state for repealing the Pistol Purchase Permitting system. But despite this step back in policy, now is the time to take a step forward in meaningful gun control measures that protect lives and to make broader changes supporting better futures for all North Carolinians.
Becky Ceartas with North Carolinians Against Gun Violence comments on the group’s website that “For decades, the Pistol Purchase Permitting system — run by our sheriffs — has been part of the backbone of public safety in the state. Sheriffs have kept untold numbers of handguns out of the hands of domestic abusers, minors, convicted felons, and people experiencing mental health crises. [Its repeal] will increase gun violence in North Carolina precisely because it ties the hands of our sheriffs to deny gun permits to people they know to be dangerous.”
I’m also ashamed of our country. We are fools in the world’s eyes for allowing so many people nationwide — usually men, usually young men of color — to die in such preventable fashion: not only in fights but also by suicide.
A few miles away from troubled Durham and a few Fridays ago I was a guest at “match day,” a cheerful ceremony when graduating medical students get “matched” with hospitals and medical schools where as newly-minted MDs they will pursue specialist training. Great applause erupted in the Dean Smith Center as a whole class of UNC-Chapel Hill medical students took the next steps in long, arduous, but probably rewarding, careers.
Meanwhile, outside the bubble of Chapel Hill’s Blue Heaven — in Henderson, or Fayetteville, or somewhere less prosperous or less white — the carnage continues. In those places, too many once-hopeful young people get the cruel message: You don’t really count. Society has no place for you.
What separates the successful young men and women in the Dean Dome on that Friday morning from their near neighbors, the shooters and the shot-at? The answer is both complicated and simple. Parents and families of many of those medical students must have paid attention, paid money, and been lucky. And the students — the “kids” — must have worked hard, and been smart, resilient, and lucky.
Still, isn’t luck the residue of social as well as personal design? These match-day youngsters were positioned to use at least some of the tools our society offered them — strong schools, grants, fellowships, loans, devoted mentors, financially stable families – and could translate those gifts into promising careers.
No family wants its children to fall out of society, but that’s what’s happening to so many young people, nationwide. Society has not offered the families of bullet-riddled and gun-wielding teenagers enough incentives to keep them within a safe routine of school, work and family life.
Money and wealth help to keep people “on track” within their society. Not only poverty, but also the prejudices of race and class, poor health, and scarce health care, present exclusionary obstacles that only the heroic superhuman could surmount. We might ask, why not try weaponized solutions?
But this living — and dying — by the gun has to stop somehow and somewhere. How? Where?
North Carolinians Against Gun Violence tries to tell us, but we’re not listening. We were not able to preserve the Pistol Purchase Permitting system, but let’s redouble our efforts to address high-capacity magazines and private-sale loopholes. Let’s launch all-enveloping publicity campaigns about safe gun storage. After all, how do juveniles get their hands on guns? We need to know and must get serious about penalties for careless adults. At least some lives might be saved, though firearms flow through too many channels.
Now is the time to act, as pandemic aid disappears and with it that extra cushion of money that perhaps reduced poverty-line stress and gave harried parents more time at home with their families, rather than at a second or third job.
The state’s expansion of Medicaid eligibility is a hopeful sign. It would be nice if this were the swallow that signaled a summer of action on all the fronts where the battle against lost lives and wasted talent is being waged.
North Carolinians should take the pledge: reduce state gun casualties by combining gun-control legislation, public-safety awareness campaigns, and humane social policies demonstrating that society has something to offer every Tar Heel.
Rosemary Haskell is a professor of English at Elon University.