Essays On Gun Safety

We moved to Trenton, New Jersey, from Puerto Rico when I was four. It was completely different then. You could go outside and play, everybody knew one another. But then, I guess in the ’80s, when the drugs came, the drug infestation in the city, there were a lot of lost families, a lot of lost communities. . . . There’s a lot of violence now, gang activity and shootings. People don’t really know one another; that sense of community isn’t there anymore. Even before my only son, Benjamin, was killed, I worked part-time at the local hospital, and we would get trauma calls, high-alert calls, and I’d call Benjamin: “Benjamin, where you at?” “I’m at home.” “Well, you got to be careful because they are shooting at such-and-such street; make sure you’re in the house.” My mom still lives in the neighborhood, and she says, you know, “Oh, they were shooting up the street.” People have become desensitized to it. I live about 25 minutes away these days. It’s a completely different world.

I started talking to Benjamin at the age of 10 about making the right choices, not being involved with guns or gangs. I would tell him, “I work to take care of you. I don’t want you ever to feel like you need to go on the street for anything.” And I was always threatening him, like, “I’m not visiting if you do something wrong. That’s not what I’m going to do. I’m not going to put any money on your books.” And raising a young man is very difficult as a single mom, but I did instill a little fear in him about the streets, how we didn’t approve of that. Constantly saying, “Look how I live, look at how I set an example. I went to school. I chose to have a job. And I worked hard for what I wanted. I didn’t go out and do anything illegal.” He was very aware of his surroundings. I would always tell him, “It’s not where you live, it’s how you live.” I always instilled that in him. Even when he was in high school, they tried to have him join a gang and he told them no, he would rather fight them than fight me.

At about 8:00 p.m. on October 10, 2012, Benjamin was in front of his grandparents’ home, sitting on the porch, listening to music, as they drove down the street shooting. The one bullet that hit him went to his heart and then his right lung, so he basically suffocated in his own blood. My dad told me Benjamin came running into the house and woke him up, saying he’d been shot and to call the police. And then he collapsed in the doorway, almost barricading my dad in the bedroom. My dad held his hand as he passed, and that always gave me a little sense of peace because I know he didn’t suffer, and I know he didn’t die alone.

It was a long night, waiting for the police to let me see him. Because I worked at the hospital, they allowed me to spend as much time as I could with Benjamin prior to them taking him to the coroner. I wanted to make sure that they treated him well, so I stayed. I watched them put him in a body bag. I watched them roll him down the hall. Sometimes I regret doing that because I still remember it, but I had to make sure that he was okay. You’re always a mom, you never lose that. I still worry about him. Is he okay? Is he cold?

I took a long time off after Benjamin’s death because I didn’t know what else to do. My mind was all over the place, thoughts racing everywhere. I went through panic attacks, things of that sort. I would stop at 8:47 p.m. on the dot. That was the time he was pronounced dead. I didn’t have to look at the clock—I knew it was 8:47.

I couldn’t drive through the tunnel in Trenton, which was my normal way to work, because it reminded me of that night. My dad ended up staying with me for two years after the shooting because he couldn’t go back inside the house where Benjamin had passed. It’s not a natural process. You don’t ever think that you will be burying your child. And then the unexpected, the unimaginable happens, and your life is completely torn apart. My husband and I were just talking about it because it’s been almost five years and he said, “Oh, we used to spend more time together” or “You used to want to go out; I want you to be how you used to be.” And I said to him, “I’m never going to be like I used to be. It’s not possible. A big part of me has gone.” He was my only child, my only biological child. I raised Benjamin to do good. You expect to see the fruits of your labor. He was maturing. He was going to school. He had found out he had a son, so he was really motivated to do right by him, because his own father wasn’t in his life. So you saw him grow into a young man, and then he was taken . . . for no reason. And it doesn’t go away. So you just learn to live with this missing piece of yourself. The world goes on, unfortunately.

Benjamin’s son, Tykir, lives with me. He’s been a blessing. It’s almost bittersweet because I see Benjamin in him so much. He really favors his father. Sometimes I smile and sometimes I cry. He asks me about his dad now that he’s getting older. He was only a year and a half old when his dad passed away. He knows who his father is from photos, but he doesn’t have any memories of him. He always asks me, “Did my daddy like this? Did my daddy do this when he was younger?” He knows his dad was killed. He knows his dad is in heaven. I try to talk to him about that. I try not to be bitter and angry because I don’t want him to see that. I want him to know that his dad was loved.

I started B.E.N.S. Way, an organization dedicated to providing support and financial assistance to minority males in the community, about two years after Benjamin was killed. I had been saving money to put up a billboard and offer a reward for information regarding his death. Benjamin was an unintended target and there were no leads in the case. The police didn’t have any information, and I wanted answers. And then my thinking changed. To know Benjamin was to know that he was a very forgiving person. He had a good heart. He never held a grudge, unlike his mother. He always wanted to help.

I thought, Why don’t I start something to help other boys in the community? I should help those who don’t have the opportunities that Benjamin had, to give them something that they can use, to help them see that the world is more than just Trenton, New Jersey. And if I can change one life, prevent one of them from turning to a life of crime or violence, or tap into the potential they have and assist them in fulfilling their goals, doing something more with themselves, then I think Benjamin would be pleased. And when Tykir gets older, he’s going to look up his dad’s name on the Internet and see all the good that was done because of him.

But with all the gun violence that’s going on, unless we do something to curb the spread of gun violence and advocate for safer gun laws, we’re not going to have any young people left to give our scholarships to. It’s not going to happen because there is constant violence taking innocent lives. Seems like every day you read about another child being gunned down or suffering from gun violence.

That’s the reason why I speak out even though I’m not comfortable speaking. I’ve never been one in the forefront, but in order to bring about some type of change in our society, in our community, we have to come together and create a culture of gun safety because it will save lives. It will. And another parent won’t have to remember their son or their daughter being taken from them due to this senseless gun violence.

Benjamin is resting in peace, but we’re still living with that loss. I tell people it’s almost like you had a fractured leg and they tried to cast it but it didn’t heal correctly. You now walk with a limp. Every day now, you feel pain when you walk, you feel that discomfort, and you continue on. But that pain and that limp are still there. They don’t ever go away.

Gun Safety is a series about gun violence in America, with a new essay appearing each day until National Gun Violence Awareness Day, on June 2. To learn more about what you can do to prevent gun violence, and to participate in the Wear Orange campaign, go to WearOrange.org.


JaJuan had a smile that would light up a room. If you were having a bad day, you could just look at him and he would make you smile. He had these big, beautiful, and loving eyes. Every time he would stretch them wide—ooh!—they would give you little chills.

He was the baby of our family, only 14 years old. Even though he and his brother were four years apart, they were very close. They shared an unbreakable bond. His father is in the military, so we do a lot of moving and traveling—we did a lot together as family: creating traditions, going on vacations, everything was close-knit. JaJuan was shy at times, at your first meeting, but once you got to know him, he would open up. JaJuan was full of love and life. He loved to share, and share himself with others. He was very active in our youth ministry at church, where he would pack food for the elderly members and our disabled members. He’d be the first to run to do it because he always liked to help—no matter what you were doing, he would stop what he was doing just to help someone. He would tell his peers that it was okay to be different; you didn’t always have to fit in. JaJuan made a loving impact on everyone he met.

JaJuan loved everything about nature. He loved to be in the yard on the weekends looking for lizards; that was his thing, to find lizards and insects and bugs. His room was almost like a petting zoo. He had lizards, hermit crabs, a hamster, a turtle, and a pet snake. All of them were living in his room, one tank stacked on top of another. He had to change the tanks on Saturdays because I told him we weren’t going to have those smells in the house. When we would go on a family vacation, we’d almost always have to go to a zoo. He would be our tour guide and tell us all about the habitats of the animals. He would often say that his biggest dream was to become a veterinarian.

On April 3, 2016, JaJuan and his brother headed down to Savannah to spend spring break with my family. I would call every day just to check on them. On April 7, I talked to JaJuan at 12:30 p.m. He told me he was at my brother’s house but that he was going to a movie with his grandma that night. I told him to be safe.

“Okay, Mom, I love you,” he said.

“I love you, too, son.”

I was sitting on the couch in the living room when, at around 4:30 p.m., my oldest son called and said, “Mom, you have to get to Savannah really quick.” And I was like, “What?” But I could hear the urgency in his voice. Then he told me JaJuan had been shot, and my whole world just stopped. There’s no way, I thought.

I just remember screaming, and my husband asking, “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” And I told him, and he just froze. I couldn’t make it up the stairs. I screamed until no sounds could be heard. We began to pray with tears in our eyes. “Lord, let our baby be alive!”

I don’t know if you know about traffic in Atlanta, but it’s horrible, especially about 4:30 in the afternoon. With every mile marker we passed, it seemed like Savannah got farther and farther away. I remember trying to call everyone and no one was answering. I tried calling JaJuan’s phone and it kept going to his voicemail. I decided to go online. I pulled up the local news channel and read, “14-year-old shot in chest in critical condition.” It felt like it was impossible that it could be him.

When we pulled into the hospital parking lot, I could see my family and friends. I started running to the hospital door and someone, I don’t remember who, grabbed me and said, “He didn’t make it.” At that moment, it felt like my heart had been ripped out of my chest, every beat was squeezed out. I was numb.

I couldn’t understand . . . how does this happen?

When the detective came to my mother’s home to speak to me, the first question he asked was “Was JaJuan right-handed or left-handed?” I was confused because the story I heard, when we first got there, was that it was a drive-by. Then the story changed to somebody coming to the door of my brother’s house. Then the story changed again. The detective told me that my son JaJuan and my brother’s 13-year-old stepson were the only two in the house, and the little boy was saying that JaJuan did it himself.

The autopsy ruled it a homicide. The medical examiner said there was no way JaJuan could have done it himself. It wasn’t at close range. The little boy may have been mishandling the firearm and it accidentally discharged and the bullet hit JaJuan in the chest. They charged the little boy with involuntary manslaughter. He pleaded guilty and served three months in juvenile and was given two years’ probation. I guess he came up with the different stories to try to get himself out of trouble. I can imagine, as a 13-year-old, he was scared, but even in fear one should tell the truth. An innocent life was taken. JaJuan’s life was tragically taken by someone he trusted, by someone he called family. I believe he never fully disclosed what happened that day. So today and every day on this journey, we have so many unanswered questions. This was 100 percent preventable. Our faith is what keeps us going. I often read letters written by JaJuan’s peers that put a smile on my face, even through the tears that often come without warning.

My relationship with my brother is still strained. We don’t really talk as much as we used to. I think it’s because if we did talk, I would only have more questions.

Instead of subjecting myself to that pain all over again, I’ll wait until it gets to a place where there is peace that surpasses all understanding. I can’t imagine what his family is going through, which makes this even more difficult. At times I so badly want to pick up the phone and ask what happened to my baby. But I know I may never get the answers I’m looking for.

We are putting our pain into purpose. We organized a Fun Run and 5K in JaJuan’s memory on Earth Day 2017. It was a good turnout and we helped bring awareness to the Be SMART Campaign. Be SMART: Secure your firearms in your home and vehicles; Model responsible behavior; Ask about unsecured firearms in other homes; Recognize the risk of teenage suicide; Tell others to Be SMART. Personally, we’re not against the Second Amendment. I believe in the right to bear arms. But we just want there to be gun sense. We’re not trying to control, just use gun sense: Where are you securing your firearms? You’re not just laying them around, and you’re not being careless, cleaning your loaded firearm with your kids in the room. Bullets don’t have brains, and they don’t have names, and they don’t have eyes.

Every day, more than 90 Americans are killed by gun violence and hundreds more are injured. In 2016, there were at least 264 shootings where a person age 17 or under unintentionally killed or injured someone with a gun. We shouldn’t accept it as being normal, because it is not normal to have to bury your child under these circumstances, where children get a hold of unsecured firearms.

JaJuan wasn’t exposed to guns growing up, and we didn’t talk about guns. Not that we thought we were invincible, but we just never thought of it. It’s a conversation that you don’t have until something happens, and I want to help prevent that.

No one wants to join a club like this. But when you are personally affected by the senseless gun violence in this country and you don’t want another mother, another parent, to have to go on this journey, joining Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America can help. It’s been good for me to share my voice, to speak out about the experiences and the pain that gun violence has inflicted on our family. Together we can stand and say not one more, not one more parent or one more child’s life taken by gun violence.

The more we ignore the problem, the more it will grow. We can’t sit back and be silent. Being silent is not the solution to gun violence, because it’s taking a devastating toll on our communities. I’ve never seen so many children have to attend funerals for their friends. Our tears matter. Our voices have to be heard. We have to continue this fight.

Gun Safety is a series about gun violence in America, with a new essay appearing each day until National Gun Violence Awareness Day, on June 2. To learn more about what you can do to prevent gun violence, and to participate in the Wear Orange campaign, go to WearOrange.org.


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