When my students told me that they hated guns, I was surprised. That’s because my students are criminals incarcerated at Suffolk County House of Correction, a medium security prison in Boston where I teach creative writing. I found out about this relationship with guns the day Mario (I use only his first name to protect his identity) read his poem “The Hammer.” It described how a gun at first empowers a man, but then, like an addiction, the man is overpowered by the gun, and the gun leads him to his death. Apparently, the poem spoke for the whole class. They all said that they wished they’d never laid their hands on one.
But many of them will pick one up the minute they’re back on the street. Not because of the gun. Because of the street.
In the wake of Newtown, there’s been a huge push for gun control – not just to protect children in suburban schools from mass shootings but to minimize the more frequent gun violence that dominates our urban streets. As I’ve learned from my students, getting guns off the streets or out of the hands of criminals won’t by itself address the problem of gun violence in poor urban communities. America needs to address the underlying circumstances that lead people such as my students to gun violence in the first place.
Especially if their lives resemble the life of my student Robert. He grew up in the 1980s at the height of the crack epidemic, turned up the volume on the TV to drown out his parents’ fights over his father’s habit, and lived in an apartment where a bullet just missed him one day when it flew through his window.
When Robert was 10 years old and walking to school in a snowstorm, a guy shoved a gun in his face and, as Robert wrote, stole his coat, hat, and shoes. Whoever had guns had all the power, Robert said, “and the GI Joe I played with, had a [big] gun, too.” Robert’s first offense was for illegal possession of a firearm, and so was his second.
My students carried guns, but they also know that guns bring nothing to their life that is good. The day Harvey tried writing a poem about how it felt to be shot, the class spoke over each other to help him get it right, and I found out that just about every other man in the room had been shot, too.
In my student Tali’s short story, a bodega owner didn’t send off his customers with a “Have a good day,” but said, instead, “Be careful out there.”
And Mike, running through nearby Charlestown, armed with a 2X4 to do battle against a gang he didn’t know and had nothing against, compared the sound of his and his friends’ feet to the march of an infantry.
“It was either him or me” was how Basil ended a poem describing a shoot-out.
I’ve never been in a war zone, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to compare one to the streets where my students live when they aren't behind bars. And like many veterans, my students, too, are physically and mentally scarred: like Mike, after that Charlestown brawl, when he discovered at the age of 13 that he was capable of beating someone nearly to death. Like Harvey, who tried and was unable emotionally, to write about getting shot. All of them, out on the street expect to be ambushed, and are traumatized from witnessing the sudden and violent deaths of friends, siblings, and cousins. My students also lose loved ones to suicide, and some attempt it themselves.
Yes, they are part of the violence; they contribute to this way of life, and many of the younger men, the ones in their twenties, are still seduced by it. But once they hit 30, most of my students want to find their way out. And one way, temporarily, is prison.
Prison, my student Robert wrote, was the first place he ever felt safe. If there were any weapons on the inside, he said, he could be pretty sure they wouldn’t be guns. Suddenly, the fear that had dominated and determined the direction of his life, was gone. Free from fear, Robert was free to begin to discover who he was.
The majority of my students grow up on society’s margins, so a centralized issue like the one on gun control has little bearing on their lives. After all, they purchase their guns illegally. Yes, we should keep guns out their hands, but if the criminals I know had been given no reason to want one they’d have never become criminals in the first place. Implement and fund the social policies and programs that will eradicate the causes for their fear, and my students won’t be condemned to find sanctuary behind prison walls simply because they were too young to know that they would never find it in a gun.
Peggy Rambach is the author of a novel "Fighting Gravity" (Steerforth Press) and the editor of two anthologies published by Paper Journey Press that emerged from her work teaching writing in the social service and health-care sectors. A second novel is forthcoming from Paper Journey Press. You can read her students’ work at www.peggyrambach.com.