July 4th is a good time to consider who we are as a country, and what better place to do that than our nation’s capital, Washington, D.C.?
Who we are as a country and how that corresponds to the value we place on human life regardless of the color of our skin is something that Kenny Barnes, Sr., who grew up in the Trinidad neighborhood in northeast Washington, D.C. in the 1950s when the city was still legally segregated, has thought about every day since his only son, Kenny Barnes, Jr., was murdered in his store in September 2001 by a seventeen-year-old with an illegal gun.
“The number one killer of African American boys and men today, ages 15-34, is death by gun violence. It’s an epidemic, yet it’s not even being addressed,” said Kenny Barnes, Sr., a behavioral and clinical psychologist. “Imagine if the number one killer of white males today, ages 15-34, was anything, much less death by gun violence. It would not be taking place.”
The case of Kenny Barnes, Jr. is representative of how complex the issue of gun violence is in this country. Since the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut in December last year, African Americans across the country have continued to express their exasperation at not being included in the conversation (with the exception of the high profile cases of Hadiya Pendleton in Chicago and Trayvon Martin in Florida).
While more than half of all mass killings in the United States have taken place since Congress allowed the Assault Weapons Ban to expire in 2004, (and several more since the aggressive marketing of military-grade weapons to the civilian population since the 1980s), black-on-black violence, an increasingly desperate issue since the 1970s, has garnered little attention, much less willingness to change the underlying reasons for it.
“It’s not just about mass murders and white people getting killed in America,” said Barnes, Sr. “If you want to talk about that, fine. But if you really want to truly talk about the impact of gun violence, it’s far more complicated.”
In 2011, for example, half of all homicide victims – about six and one half thousand Americans – were African American, yet African Americans account for only thirteen percent of the population. Proportionally, this means that an African American is about seven times as likely as a white American to be killed at the end of a gun barrel, and Americans as a whole are already seven times as likely to die by gun violence than people in other developed nations, (according to numbers compiled by the OECD).
Another complicating factor is that while curtailing the most lethal weapons the civilian population uses is critical to public safety, it will do little to prevent black-on-black violence, the majority of which is perpetuated using the handgun. (Of the 1,100 guns confiscated since 2000 in one half-mile radius of northwest Washington, D.C., 755 were handguns, the majority semiautomatic, according to a recent Washington Post article, “Recovered Guns Form a Sea of Steel from the District to Prince George’s County.”)
The seventeen-year-old, James Hill, who murdered Kenny, Jr. used a stolen .45 automatic handgun, according to Barnes, Sr. (He did not know the name of the manufacturer.) According to one source, the .45 automatic, “has attained the status of a true American patriot’s firearm because of its long association with U.S. military forces.” (On the same Website is a reference of the need to bear arms against the American government.)
Kenny Barnes, Sr. explained what happened to his son the day he was shot: “The kid [James Hill] would come in from time to time and sweep the floor and clean and stuff like that. So Kenny knew this kid, so that’s why he wasn’t feeling threatened or anything.”
On September 24, thirteen days after 9/11 when Washington, D.C. was still reeling from the terrorist attacks, James Hill visited Kenny Jr.’s store on U Street, Boutique U.
“They talked for about fifteen or twenty minutes, and then when [Kenny Jr.] was on the phone, the kid got up and took out the gun and said, ‘Okay, Kenny, you know what time it is.’ [But] my son didn’t feel threatened with this kid, and said, ‘Stop playing.’ You know, ‘Take the gun out of my face. Stop playing.’” (There was an eyewitness.)
“And so what happened was the kid put the gun to the side, but then he turned…and shot [Kenny] and killed him instantly.” The motive was robbery.
“Kenny was a very well-known individual, very flamboyant, very handsome guy, a ladies’ man, an entrepreneur,” said his Dad. Kenny Barnes, Jr. was married with four kids, and so he was not only a son, but also a husband and a father.
Kenny, Jr. opened his U Street store in 1999. (He also owned a clothing store in Silver Spring, Maryland, a suburb of Washington.)
“This was when U Street was full of blight, and I said [to him], ‘What are you doing?’ He said the neighborhood ‘is going to change.’” (Today the U Street corridor is one of the most trendy and expensive in all of D.C.)
“He never lived to benefit from it,” said Barnes, Sr.
“When I went down to the crime scene that night, nobody was there,” he continued. “There were no news cameras. There was nobody there. If a shopkeeper in Georgetown had been murdered, it would be all over the United States of America. So I went to the news, and said, this is ridiculous. Every life is sacred. Every death to gun violence should be equally important.”
On the night of the murder, however, Kenny Sr. visited the scene of the crime with one of his four daughters when all was quiet. Only the police were there, conducting their investigation.
“It was raining, and we were looking around. And a police officer said, ‘You can’t go near that,’ you know. And I said, ‘It was my son.’ So this police officer said to me, ‘Well then, you know what the deal is.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about? I know what the deal is? Explain that to me.’ So what this guy was saying, in so many words, was because my son was black, and he was murdered, that he had to be involved in some type of criminal stuff, and therefore, I had to know about it.”
The seventeen-year-old who murdered Kenny, Jr. turned himself in to the police after one week. It emerged that he had killed at least two other people in the course of that year. He had also escaped from four juvenile justice homes.
“I was so enraged,” said Barnes, Sr., “because here was a system that just didn’t care.”
Barnes, Sr. described James Hill as absolutely remorseless in the courtroom. “This kid didn’t one day decide that he was going to walk in the door and shoot my son and murder him. The seeds [to that violence] had been planted years before. And it was obvious, and nobody did anything about it. Like the kid in Newtown [Connecticut, Adam Lanza] – you knew, you knew he was going to kill somebody. All the signs were there.”
One young man was “born crazy,” he said, whereas the other one was conditioned in an environment, “where violence becomes normal.”
“This is why gun violence is a public health issue,” he said.
The other unifying thread with regard to all gun violence, though, is easy access to guns. Washington, D.C. and Chicago, Illinois are both infamous for their gang-related violence, for example, and critics of gun law reforms use these and other cities as examples of how stricter gun laws do not work, as if American cities sit behind fortresses or citizens need to pass through border controls to enter or leave them. Only since 2008 (District of Columbia v D.C.) has it been legal to own a handgun in the District of Columbia, and then only in your home or place of business. Yet since 2000, police have recovered nearly 50,000 guns in Washington, D.C. and neighboring Prince George’s County, Maryland, according to the same Washington Post article cited above, including several semiautomatic rifles, which are strictly illegal. There are no gun stores in the District, which means that “virtually all firearms” recovered there “come from somewhere else.” Fully half of all guns recovered in the District come from only two gun dealers – one in Maryland and the other in Virginia.
James Hill received 105 years without parole for the three murders (thirty-three years each), and six years for illegal possession of a firearm. But for Kenny Barnes, Sr., who has been an activist since his son’s murder, there is no closure to his son’s death and the terrible way in which he was killed.
“That’s revenge, maybe,” he said, “but that’s not closure.”
Among Kenny Barnes, Sr.’s aggressive push for reform, he founded Reaching Out to Others Together (ROOT, Inc.) to advocate on behalf of victims of gun violence and their families, for which he has received many awards, including the National Service Award from Attorney General Eric Holder and the Department of Justice in April 2009 at the National Crime Victims’ Rights Week Awards Ceremony.
Activism for Kenny Barnes, Sr., is a kind of therapy, he said, but he remains dissatisfied: his son is gone, African Americans continue to die in disproportionate numbers from gun violence, and society as a whole continues to ignore the problems of the black community.
“There needs to be a holistic, national campaign with conversations addressing the whole scope of gun violence and its impact.
“We need to look at the trauma that violence creates. Kids exposed from a young age to violence without any intervention will be violent. And if you sit there and don’t do anything about it, it’s not going to get better – it’s going to get worse.”
If you or anyone you know has been a victim of gun violence and would like to share your story with Moms Demand Action, please email [email protected].