Sun, Oct 06, 2019 - Page 7 News List

Thirteen children killed by guns this year in one US city

The children, all black and one as young as two, have been shot dead in St Louis since April

By Amanda Holpuch and Lauren Aratani  /  GUARDIAN, ST LOUIS, Missouri

Illustration: Constance Chou

Growing up between abandoned buildings and empty lots, Xavier Usanga brought love and affection whenever he could. Those who knew him say he gave off joy like it was a superpower, enveloping everyone he knew in the glow.

Last month, a day before starting second grade, the seven-year-old was shot dead in crossfire outside his home. His story is grimly familiar in St Louis, Missouri, a city of more than 300,000 that sits on the west bank of the Mississippi River and where 13 black children have been fatally shot since April.

Had those 13 children died in one fast hail of bullets, that tally would rank in the nation’s 20 deadliest mass shootings. If they had been white, it is likely they would have had more media attention.

Instead, these children died in the dilapidated parts of town most people are told to avoid — sometimes alone, sometimes as family stood helplessly by. In these corners of the city, parents tell their children the loud banging outside is fireworks, but because it is really gunfire, they do not let them outside to see.

Xavier was in his backyard. He was heading back from a neighbor’s house with two of his older sisters — Trinity, 10, and Angel, 12 — when gunshots rang out. The girls ran into their home, where they realized Xavier was not with them, and turned back and found his body under a bush. They told their grandmother he took a deep breath and was gone.

Michael Johnson, a pastor who helped support the family, was close to Xavier and was with his mother to help identify the body. Johnson said Xavier was “a sponge for love — he needed it, he absorbed it.”

“He would never walk into a room without coming to give you a hug, whether you saw him an hour earlier or you saw him two weeks ago,” Johnson said. “He always came, looked at you, and smiled and wanted a hug.”

Xavier’s mother, Dawn Usanga, told the Guardian that Xavier “lit up every room he walked into” and was popular with many people in their neighborhood.

“For seven years old, I don’t know, he was just so innocent, he was sweet, everybody just took to him,” she said. “I think the only thing that gives me any kind of comfort is that St Louis never got to ruin my son,” Usanga said. “Anything could have gotten to him — drugs, the violence, the guns, influences of other kids. Children can get turned around so fast and get running and do the wrong things.”

ACCESS TO GUNS

For at least four years of Xavier’s short life, St Louis has been the murder capital of the US. It has had the highest gun homicide rate per capita of any big city since 2014. This violence disproportionately affects the city’s poor black neighborhoods, and this year children as young as two have become a symbol for how entrenched the city is in violence. St Louis County, the suburbs which border the city, have also seen a high child murder rate with seven children shot dead.

St Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson has offered US$25,000 for information on four of the dead children’s cases, a grand total of US$100,000. The city is also planning to spend US$500,000 on the lauded crime reduction program, Cure Violence, and another US$1.5 million on violence prevention efforts.

The city also has programs to provide food, recreation and jobs to low-income people, as well as large-scale efforts to demolish derelict homes. This year, St Louis plans to tear down 700 homes, and has programs that allow people to purchase homes for US$1.

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