young and armed  the scourge of teen gun violence

A gun at 14, then a senseless killing

Two young lives are swept away in Minneapolis by a relentless flow of illegal firearms.

Waiting under the shade of pine trees, across from a church with boarded windows, is another teenager from the neighborhood, Malcolm Jackson. He clutches a .357 Magnum revolver in his trembling hand.

Malcolm points the gun at a 17-year-old boy.

“You ever been shot before?” he asks.

He turns the gun to a 15-year-old girl.

“Think I won’t kill you?”

It seems so unreal, so jarring on this sunny Friday, that nobody runs. Trequan looks at Malcolm, two 16-year-olds on different ends of a handgun in a south Minneapolis alley. Trequan, doubting the threat, turns to leave, telling the others, “Come on.”

Two gunshots. A bullet rips through Trequan’s back and opens a hole in his chest.

Malcolm bolts, ghosting through a neighborhood alive with cars and people, tossing his chrome revolver on a garage rooftop.

“It was aim and shoot,” he says later. “Just like a video game.”

• • •

Police caught Malcolm in four hours. Why did he pull the trigger that bright day in June last year? Witnesses knew his name. He was in plain daylight. And his only motive appeared to be an earlier fistfight over what he later called “some nonsense.”

Trequan wasn’t even the one he came looking for.

But Malcolm still opened fire — with a gun he had bought illegally for $300 when he was 14.

Minneapolis had recorded another senseless murder: a case of two teenagers, shooter and victim, both swept away in the river of guns flowing through poor urban neighborhoods in the Twin Cities and across the country, guns that constantly swap hands, guns from a shadowy marketplace that’s hard for investigators to shut down, guns that are cheap, plentiful and ever more deadly.

“Children know that guns are easily available, that they’re getting into the wrong hands, and no one is really addressing that issue,” said Andre Dukes, assistant pastor at Shiloh Temple International Ministries and family academy director of the Northside Achievement Zone.

As they struggle to prevent more teen funerals and prison terms, Dukes and other community leaders say the raging debate over gun control must include the bloodshed in the nation’s cities being stoked by a flourishing, illicit gun trade.

Urban gun violence does not typically erupt in nation-shocking massacres like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., last December. On city streets, the devastation from gun violence comes and goes with little notice, day after day, with just a few shots, some fired randomly, often after a gang dispute or a petty grudge.

And then Trequan Sykes is dead.

Or 3-year-old Terrell Mayes Jr., killed by a stray bullet inside his home in December 2011 as he held a bowl of spaghetti for dinner.

Or 5-year-old Nizzel George, fatally wounded while sleeping on a couch after teenage gang members settled a score by firing bullets into his house last summer.

Since 2001, at least 116 kids have been shot dead in Minnesota. Nationwide, as many as 2,000 children and teens die a year from gun homicide — the equivalent of 100 Newtowns — the victims disproportionately young black males in beleaguered neighborhoods.

In the hands of adolescents and teenagers, guns may seem little more than toys. Researchers who have probed killings among young people say their still-developing brains can limit their ability to grasp the difference between a fistfight and a gunfight — until it’s too late.

“Many of them are sorry that they did use the gun, because it’s really quite easy to use; they didn’t mean it,” said Michigan State University Prof. Carl Taylor, who has studied urban youth violence.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the neurological difference between adult and teen offenders when it banned mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles. The majority opinion noted that juveniles have an underdeveloped sense of responsibility, and that kids, unable to remove themselves from crime-soaked settings, are more prone to destructive influences.

Adolescents are driven by thrill-seeking impulses. The prefrontal cortex, which helps humans weigh risk and reward, doesn’t fully develop until the 20s. Teens are far more likely to take risks, and even more so when friends are watching.

The stakes are higher for black youth, like Malcolm and Trequan. The flood of illegal firearms in poor black neighborhoods, coupled with chronic fears of violence, combine to make gun homicide the leading cause of death for black teens aged 15 to 19.

That’s why Trequan’s family moved out of Chicago. They thought the streets of Minneapolis would be safer, that they could turn their backs on violence.

For a while, they were right.

‘I’ll eat the bullets’

Trequan Martell Sykes was born in Chicago on Oct. 19, 1995, with an enlarged heart and kidney, a partly formed spine and digestive system defects.

His mother, Phaedra Singleton, hardly had time to cradle her 7½-pound baby before doctors whisked him away. Singleton felt afraid to fully love Trequan at first, as he shuttled in and out of the hospital, as doctors wondered whether he would ever walk.

He was so sick. What if something happened to him? What if he died?

Trequan overcame his early medical problems so well that he joked to his mother that he wasn’t really human. He was invincible.

As it was, death and injury bled into their surroundings.

Singleton raised her children in Englewood, a neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, where she taught them to drop to the floor when shots rang out. Once, when they were in the park, someone opened fire near them in retaliation for another shooting.

As her children grew older, Singleton wearied of daily news reports about people getting shot over nothing. She didn’t worry so much about Trequan — he was affable and coolheaded.

So in September 2009, after a close friend moved from Chicago to Minneapolis and urged her to follow, she did.

Her two sons joined the football team at Roosevelt High School, with Trequan playing running back and linebacker and his older brother Dre’Quan playing wide receiver and safety.

Trequan excelled at more than sports. He was gifted at drawing cartoons and wanted to study art. He loved cooking and hoped to follow the chef career of his mother’s longtime boyfriend. He made pancakes, barbecue and other dishes for his family; while his siblings relaxed one recent Thanksgiving, he was in the kitchen helping his mother cook the turkey.

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