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Killing a 13-year-old boy suspected of 'tampering' with cars is an outrage

The United States is still more in love with guns than with the idea that Black children and adults have a right to live.

When a Washington, D.C., man exited his home in the predawn darkness of Jan. 7 and fired shots at a group of Black people he said were “tampering” with cars on his street, he wasn’t being a hero, and his story doesn’t have a happy ending. According to Washington police, after that homeowner “interacted” with Karon Blake, a 13-year-old 7th grader, he shot him multiple times in the body. Karon died at a hospital. Police have said they've seen no indication he was armed.  

We should all be questioning the American obsession with guns and vigilantism that leaves dead a 7th grader suspected of vandalizing cars.

Police have declined to offer more details about the investigation or the identity of the homeowner and no arrest has been made, but we should all be questioning the American obsession with guns and vigilantism that leaves dead a 7th grader suspected of vandalizing cars. Boys of other colors are allowed mistakes — “youthful indiscretions” is often the phrase bandied about — and are not punished as if they are deadly men.

This is not just an issue white people need to address. The homeowner who shot Karon is Black, and Black people in the United States are buying more and more guns. The more guns there are in the hands of people of all colors who’ve grown up with the idea of Black teenage superpredators, the more children there’ll be who die at the hands of those gun owners.

Years after Black Lives Matter brought this issue to Americans’ attention,  the United States is still more in love with guns than with the idea that Black children and adults have a right to live. States across the country are making it legal for residents to open-carry guns with no questions asked and no permits required, and reports continue of the extrajudicial killings of Black men and boys who may or may not have weapons.

On Oct. 6, police in Gulfport, Mississippi, killed 15-year-old Jaheim McMillan after responding to calls of teenagers waving firearms at passing cars. Mississippi, an open-carry state, does prohibit exhibiting weapons in a rude, angry or threatening manner, but the maximum punishment is a $500 fine and jail, not death. As in Karon’s case, police have not made public much information about Jaheim’s shooting, and they haven’t publicly released footage from the officers’ body cameras.

On Oct. 12, Krieg Butler, a 36-year-old white man, shot dead 13-year-old Sinzae Reed, who lived in the same apartment complex in Columbus, Ohio. Columbus police arrested Butler, but stopped pursuing murder charges when he claimed he acted in self-defense. Because of a recent change in Ohio law, homicide suspects don’t have to prove they acted in self-defense. Prosecutors must prove they didn’t.

According to a statement Monday provided to USA Today by the Franklin County Prosecutor’s Office, police in Columbus “are in the process of investigating” Sinzae’s death, and the Columbus Police Department directed USA Today to a Dec. 31 statement that says, in part: “We are aware of the community’s concerns regarding the investigation and want to ensure the community that this investigation is far from over.”

Because of a recent change in Ohio law, homicide suspects don’t have to prove they acted in self-defense. Prosecutors must prove they didn’t.

For those of you who are asking (and I know some of you are), it doesn’t matter what Karon was doing out so late or whether he or his friends were messing with cars on the homeowner’s street. It doesn’t matter whether Jaheim had previously been waving a gun around.  It doesn’t matter that police had the day before announced the arrests and indictments of gang members in Sinzae’s neighborhood.

There’s been no evidence presented that Sinzae was doing anything wrong. As for Karon and Jaheim, the crimes for which they could have been charged — if there was evidence to charge them with anything — do not carry the death penalty. And yet, that is what they got, and it’s what countless other Black boys and men still face in American society: the possibility that the implication of a crime will provoke someone to shoot them to death.

We may never know whether any of these boys were doing anything wrong. Their deaths render them unable to defend themselves. But as angry D.C. politicians have said in response to Karon being killed, neither concern over property nor unreasonable fear of a Black child or teen justifies gun owners taking the law into their own hands.

“No car or material possession is worth a life — under any circumstances,” D.C. Councilmember Zachary Parker said.

“If you feel that there is a public safety issue in or around your home, call 911. That is the appropriate thing to do, to call 911,” Mayor Muriel Bowser said Monday.

Anyone with common sense can see that the United States has a gun and vigilantism problem. Add to that our country’s racism problem and we have an explanation for why Black teenagers are at the fatal end of this particular kind of homicide. Although half of the people shot and killed by police are white, Black people, who account for roughly 14% of the U.S. population, are killed by police at more than twice the rate of white Americans. Police also kill Hispanic Americans at a disproportionate rate. Native Americans are killed by police at a higher rate than anybody.

Americans have been sold a kind of “Dirty Harry” fantasy by gun-makers and politicians.

Whether they’re police officers or not, and whatever their race, Americans have been sold a kind of “Dirty Harry” fantasy by gun-makers and politicians. In that fantasy, nothing’s a more reliable problem solver than a gun.

But this isn’t the Wild West, and shoot-first-ask-questions-later actions have to be addressed with aggressive prosecution. “Tampering” with a car is a minor property crime. Killing a person who isn’t a threat is a major felony. The second of those crimes will always be the more serious one.