The first time someone pulled a gun on Malik Morgan, he was 12 and walking home from Wally’s Foods with chips and a bottle of iced tea.

Several guys he recognized from north Minneapolis’ Stick Up Boys gang taunted him near the corner of Golden Valley Road and Penn Avenue: “Are you trying to be in SUB?”

Malik mumbled no and walked faster.

“We got guns.”

“I don’t mess with that.”

The other boys swung at Malik a few times. Then one pulled out a handgun. Malik cried for help and escaped.

The provocation was never reported to police — but it’s a constant threat for children like Malik trying to grow up in neighborhoods infested with illegal firearms.

In his visit to north Minneapolis in February, President Obama praised the “Minneapolis model” of intensive social work for reducing gun violence among young people. Yet in introducing the president, Police Chief Janeé Harteau invoked the names of Nizzel and Terrell, two toddlers slain in their own Minneapolis homes over the past 15 months by bullets fired from outside, to reveal how any child can be at risk in places where guns fall into the wrong hands.

The number of guns confiscated from the streets of Minneapolis and St. Paul rose in 2012, aided by a robust market supplied by legal and illegal dealers. Since 2007, more than 1,100 handguns, rifles and shotguns were taken off the streets in Malik’s North Side ZIP code alone.

Over the past decade, 22 teens and children have died by gunfire in that area, making it the most likely place in Minnesota for young people to get shot dead.

One of them was a close friend of Malik’s, a 13-year-old named Ray’Jon Gomez, who lost his life in August 2011 after being shot while riding a bicycle. One of the suspects, who was 15 at the time, said in court last month that he meant to shoot someone next to Gomez.

Malik thinks he’s seen six guns in the hands of boys not much older than him.

Malik, now 15, has no desire to arm himself. He just wants to roam the neighborhood without lectures from his parents and harassment by gangbangers with guns. So he didn’t tell his parents about his run-in with the Stick Up Boys. He knows how much they already worry every time he goes out.

A friend dies

Malik’s mother, Margaret Morgan, scans the floor of the Metrodome, searching for her son. She knows he is down there, on the floor, amid the throngs of monster truck fans, T-shirt vendors, a pair of women in bikinis promoting one of the monster trucks and a parade of dads carrying their young sons on their shoulders. It’s three weeks before Christmas and this is something of an annual tradition for Margaret, her husband and their son, who loves trucks and dreams of working on them one day.

She descends the last few steps from the bleachers onto the field and charges into the crowd.

“If Grave Digger’s on the floor, then that’s where he’s at,” says Margaret, her feet kicking up dirt as she crosses the stadium floor. She soon finds Malik and his friend, who have been checking out the monster trucks before the show starts. They’ve already met Grave Digger’s driver, Adam Anderson, and start posing next to each truck as Margaret dutifully snaps photos.

The arena is noisy, and soon the trucks will buck and bounce over barriers strewn across the floor.

Malik’s only concerns that day are whether his mother will buy him a $10 pennant emblazoned with the Grave Digger logo (she does) and whether she’ll spring for a toy Grave Digger truck (she doesn’t — too expensive).

Margaret and her husband, Jose Morgan, moved to the North Side 15 years ago. They know the pressures that are on Malik. Margaret, 40, battled bullies in south Minneapolis as the oldest of three children, went in and out of the juvenile system and ran with a gang for protection. Jose, 40, grew up on Chicago’s West Side, where “every breath most of the people you knew breathed was gang violence.”

He talks to Malik about staying away from gangs and guns, about finding something you care about and giving it 150 percent.

But just outside the door of their home in the Willard-Hay neighborhood, the threat lingers.

Some researchers have found that exposure to gun violence creates a cycle of crime. Adolescents who are witnesses or victims of gun violence are twice as likely to go on to perpetrate such behavior, according to one 2005 study of 1,500 youths in Chicago.

Young inmates imprisoned for gun crimes echoed what those academics have found, telling the Star Tribune that they turned to armed violence after experiencing trauma. One was shot while getting off the bus. Another saw his uncle ambushed by gunmen outside the Boys and Girls Club. Another was at a barbecue when a man walked up and fired shots, leaving a friend paralyzed.

Ferome Brown, who has made a career of steering young people away from gangs, said many want to break the pattern.

“If you come to young adults and young kids about this situation, the first thing they say is, ‘It’s been too much bloodshed. What can we do to make things right, because we don’t want these things happening, where we’ll have to leave, we have to go to prison or we’ll die,’ ” said Brown, a former gang member who is now CEO of Urban Youth Conservation in Minneapolis.

Malik already knows how quickly a young life can be taken away.

He met Ray’Jon Gomez playing basketball two or three years ago at North Commons Park, and they became fast friends.

As months went by, Malik disliked the other kids Ray’Jon was hanging out with. So did his mother, who lectured Ray’Jon when he came around the house. Finally, she laid down the law.

“I know you see him, but you’re not allowed to be with him,” she told Malik. “Because at any given time, with the things they choose to participate in, you can get hurt.”

One day in August 2011, she turned on the TV and saw the news: Three boys were riding bikes one summer evening near the playground of the old Willard Elementary School when someone started shooting. A 12-year-old who was with Ray’Jon was shot in the shoulder. Ray’Jon was hit in the back and jumped off the bike. Then he got up and ran. His body wasn’t found until hours later, sprawled face down between two houses.

When Margaret told Malik about it, he froze, not believing her.

Then he fled the house, running all the way to Ray’Jon’s house on Russell Avenue, confronting his friend’s father.

“Is Ray’Jon dead?” Malik asked.

Yes, said his father, his face grim.

Malik ran a few blocks to where Ray’Jon was found. Children and neighbors swarmed the scene. News cameras hovered.

Back home, the Morgans filled a trash bag with teddy bears and other stuffed animals, smudged with burned sage and tobacco. Margaret prayed that Ray’Jon’s soul would pass easily into heaven, that Malik would get through this. They all went to the scene, but it was chaotic. The police were there.

Malik’s father quickly dropped the tributes at the fence and hurried away, fearful that something might erupt.

The day after Ray’Jon’s death, the Morgans stood in a weed-filled lot for a prayer vigil that centered on the recent violence. Earlier that week, 14-year-old Quantell Braxton had been shot to death while playing tag near North Commons.

“Take away the hate; take away the madness, God, and replace it with peace,” prayed the Rev. Jerry McAfee, pastor of New Salem Missionary Baptist Church.

Malik cried nearly the entire time in his father’s arms.

“It’s sad ... our kids are dying,” Jose Morgan said at the vigil. “This is all we got. They’re dying. We need them here.”

Malik says he’s learned two lessons from the death of Ray’Jon, who, even with his parents’ disapproval, seemed like his brother.

“Anything can happen anytime.”

“I don’t want to turn out like that.”

Guns at school

That means resisting the fear that has led some of his peers to get guns. When he was in eighth grade, Malik was sitting in the computer lab at school one day when a friend showed him something on the screen. A 9-millimeter handgun, an AR-15 assault rifle, other guns. I can get you one, the friend said.

“He said he got connects, or something like that,” Malik recalled. Still, he turned him down. His parents told him never to go near a gun.

But as the year went on, Malik didn’t have a choice.

It was a spring day last year. Malik spied eight guys near Penn and 21st Avenues N. as he walked home from a friend’s house. It was the same gang that had harassed him after his trip to Wally’s store. “Come here,” they called out.

Malik walked faster. They followed him. He cut through an alley. They goaded him again: Did he want to be in the gang?

One of the guys lifted his shirt to reveal what looked like a 9mm pistol. Malik ran.

Malik’s mother got fed up last summer, after hearing gunfire a couple of times in one week. She sent Malik to stay with his cousin for a month in Woodbury, where Malik enjoyed the novel setting, the quiet of the suburbs.

He came home when school started, and the peace didn’t last.

At the start of ninth grade at Harrison Education Center last fall, an older classmate heckled Malik at school. Over several weeks, insults gave way to punches in the hallways. Then, the classmate ran into Malik one afternoon at North Commons and yanked the Eastern BMX bike out of his hands.

The classmate pulled out a gun.

Malik couldn’t tell what kind it was, only recalling a flash of black and silver.

“Give me my bike back,” he pleaded.

“What bike?” said the boy, pointing the gun.

Malik’s friend piped in, telling the other boy to stop playing.

“Shut up,” came the response.

Malik and his friend raced across the park to the recreation building as darkness fell, hoping they could still get inside. But the doors were locked; the park was closed. They headed east on Golden Valley Road, toward a church, but when Malik finally turned around the thief was gone.

The robbery happened only a few months after Mayor R.T. Rybak and other city leaders stood in the North Commons gymnasium alongside NFL player E.J. Henderson to announce a review of the city’s youth violence prevention efforts, nearly five years after surging juvenile crime prompted officials to target the problem.

“We all need to come together to help protect our youth,” Henderson said in a video shown at the event. “If you see or hear about an illegal gun, don’t hesitate to say something about it.”

But Malik left out the detail about the gun when he told his parents about losing his bike.

“You know what, forget it, don’t worry about bikes,” Malik’s father told him. “I’ll get you a brand-new bike next year.”

Malik had his own plan if the guy ever came for him again with a gun: Knock it out of his hand, try to pick it up, run and take it to the police.

Then, in November, Malik and all the other kids left teen night in North Commons when they heard gunshots. “It was right there in the field. Boom, boom, boom, and we just started running,” Malik said. They saw shadowy figures sprint across the park.

Malik and his friend walked two of the younger kids home to ensure they would be OK.

The staff at North Commons know all about the problem.

Larry Umphrey, a park team leader who supervises North Commons, said it is not out of the ordinary for kids at that park to hear gunfire. At times, police call to report gunshots and direct supervisors to lock the door. “A lot of times we won’t know anything unless the kids come in and tell us,” Umphrey said.

Malik never told Umphrey about his bike getting stolen at gunpoint. It was just one of those things that happened.

The call

Two months after her son’s robbery, Margaret got the call she always dreaded.

“Is this Margaret Morgan?”

“Yes,” she replied.

“Do you have a son named Malik Morgan?”

“Yes,” she said, a little more nervously.

Did something happen? She panicked.

The answer made no sense to her: Malik was sitting in the Juvenile Justice Center for taking another boy’s bike at North Commons.

She felt so angry, like such a failure as a mother, that she only went to the center that night to deliver some medication. She would not properly visit him until the next day. She wanted him to think about what he did.

The bike theft grew out of a dispute with a friend over a bet on the basketball court. Malik sat in detention for four days, getting out just in time for Thanksgiving.

Malik said he never meant to keep the bike — he returned it the same day.

But Margaret wondered: Was this the start of something worse?

“All the stuff I tried to teach and preach to him, he still went to jail, which is better than to think he got shot or dead because that’s what I thought when I first got the call,” she said. “But I think him getting locked up felt just as worse.”

She grounded him.

Perhaps the most disappointed was Malik’s father.

An assistant manager at Jimmy John’s in St. Louis Park, Jose talks to him again and again about avoiding trouble.

As black males, he cautions, “the smallest mistakes are critical for us.”

Malik’s trial was repeatedly postponed, and after more probing Margaret felt that the stories of the boys involved in the supposed bike theft did not add up. She expected the case would be dropped. But she was still frustrated — wasn’t this how violence often started around here, with petty fights snowballing?

In the months after, Malik turned his focus more than ever to basketball. He stayed away from North Commons and joined the Farview Park team.

Several times a week, he went right after school to shoot hoops hours before practice started. He always wore the yellow and red Nikes his uncle gave him, the ones that matched the colors of the Farview Cardinals.

Margaret and Jose came to many games to cheer him on from the bleachers.

“Good hustle, Malik,” Jose yelled one Wednesday game in January.

“Come on, Farview, good job,” said Margaret, clapping.

His friend shot and missed. Malik grabbed the ball and hurled it through the net, one of many shots he made that helped the Cardinals win 41-33 over Phillips Stewart.

“All right, Malik!” his mother yelled.

His dad thundered: “Yeahhhh boy.”

Maya Rao • 612-673-4210

Matt McKinney • 612-217-1747