In 1998, Ismael Watkins was walking down a street when a bullet hit him in the neck. He never took another step.
Today, the 33-year-old relies on a wheelchair to get around and still remembers those life-changing moments as if they had happened yesterday.
“I heard the shot, it hit my neck, another grazed my neck,” Watkins told AFP, sharing how, at age 18, he had just become a father when his fate took a turn for the worse.
Watkins’ story is by no means unique. Every year, hundreds of young African Americans are wounded or killed by weapons in the United States.
According to a 2012 report by the Children’s Defense Fund, gun homicide was the leading cause of death for young blacks aged 15 to 19 and they were eight times as likely to be victims than their white counterparts.
Since 1979, 44,038 black children and teenagers were killed by guns, nearly 13 times more than the number of recorded lynchings of blacks of all ages from 1882 to 1968, according to the group.
Recently, the fatal shooting of a young African American girl in Chicago just days after she performed at President Barack Obama’s January inauguration put a particularly poignant face on the issue, further fueling a political debate about how best to reduce arms-related killings in the United States.
Watkins gains strength by attending support group meetings every Tuesday at Washington’s MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital.
Others in the Urban Re-Entry Group — all “individuals with violently acquired disabilities” — have similar stories to tell.
Among them is Kwame Dew, 38, who was leaving a club one night 13 years ago when he was gunned down.
“All I remember is… (I) blanked out, then I’m in a hospital, couldn’t talk, could do nothing,” he said.
Corie Davis meanwhile became a quadriplegic when, on August 30, 1999, a stranger lodged a bullet in his neck.
“I actually don’t know the person who shot me,” said the now 33-year-old. “I have always thought I was at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
To David Cole, a law professor at Georgetown University, the plight of people like Watkins and his fellow support group members sheds light on the true face of gun violence in America, where the constitution guarantees everyone the right to bear arms.
While the focus of the public is on mass shootings such as the December massacre at a Connecticut elementary school that claimed 26 lives, in addition to those of the gunman and his mother, “that’s not the reality of gun violence in the United States,” Cole said.
“The reality is concentrated in the inner cities, among the poor, and the victims are overwhelmingly young black men and Hispanics,” he said. “The reality of the right to bear arms in the United States is a young black kid scared with a gun in a back alley shooting at another young black kid (who is) equally scared.”
The statistics speak for themselves.
According to a 1980 to 2008 trend analysis by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, blacks were disproportionately represented among homicide victims and offenders: They were six times more likely than whites to be homicide victims and seven times more likely than whites to commit homicide.
A recent report by the Violence Policy Center analyzing 2010 FBI data said blacks — who that year represented 13 percent of the US population — accounted for 49 percent of all homicide victims. For homicides in which the weapon could be identified, 83 percent of black victims were killed with guns. In total, there were 6,469 black homicide victims that year.
“The devastation homicide inflicts on black teens and adults is a national crisis, yet it is all too often ignored outside of affected communities,” said the report.
Violence-stricken African American communities in Chicago and Baltimore have mobilized and launched prevention programs.
But, according to Cole, a majority of Americans “doesn’t concern itself with them.”
“If you don’t live in an inner city community, you can kind of look the other way and not concern yourself with it,” he said.
Samuel Gordon, a psychologist who works with Watkins’ support group, says victims are typically from low income neighborhoods and families and either dropped out of school or didn’t get the best education.
Tackling the problem “has to be collective” and focus on education that steers youngsters away from “fast money” on the street.
Dew, for one, has pleaded with his three daughters to stay away from weapons.
“Don’t play with guns, guns are dangerous — see how I’m in a (wheel)chair,” he said.