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For kids the value of carrying a BB gun in Baltimore

Liz Phillips// Flickr Creative Commons


The Daisy pellet gun 14-year-old Dedric Colvin was carrying when he was shot by police last week looks just like a real Beretta automatic pistol, which has led many to wonder why a youngster would have such a gun.

At a press conference the day after the shooting, Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said the gun in Colvin’s hand so closely resembled a real one you’d have to look down the barrel to know difference. And he wondered, "what is a 13-year-old doing with one of these in his hand?"

12 year old Mannie Thames had an answer: "I think it’s a cool, and I think he kind of cool…"

He's talking about a neighborhood friend who has a BB gun. He says his friend has it because that’s what he’s seen people do on the streets. And Mannie has had a few BB guns of his own over the years too. He says a lot of people want them: 

"Sometimes people get bullied a lot, and they want to have something to protect theirself.  And sometimes people think it’s cool and they want to shoot people for fun."


He says this as he squirms around in a rolling chair at the after school youth center, Penn North Kids Safe Zone, a few blocks from the epicenter of last April’s unrest. 

Mannie is not the only one his age who has dealt with BB guns. Asia Moss, also 12, was shot by one in elementary school. She says the tough kids have BB guns or pocket knives or mace.

"They use if for protection but some just use it be fun and they use it to harm other people and think it’s fun," she says. And she explains that kids have a lot of reasons for having the guns.

"This didn’t happen to me, but this happened to my friend. She has parents she feels don’t care about her," she pauses. And she says more quietly, "Her parents are like drug dealers and stuff – and so I feel like she grew up to be a bully. So she bullies other kids.  People do stuff because of what their parents do."

 Maryland lawmakers tried unsuccessfully this year to ban replica guns, but withdrew their bills in the face of stiff opposition from gun lobbyists and paintball operators. But Delegate Jill Carter, a Baltimore Democrat who co-sponsored one of the bills, says last week’s shooting has breathed new life into the legislation.

"Politicians and legislative leadership is often reactionary to what the public is interested in and public sentiment. And the very fact of this case and that so much attention is being put on this issue of replica guns, I think  will give the bill more momentum next session," she says. 

Replica guns have also sparked discussion in some neighborhoods. Tonette McFadden, who lives in West Baltimore with sons 16 and 17, tries to shield them from any sort of gun reference.

"I didn’t want them to get used to evening pointing a gun, pretending to shoot a gun in no way shape or form." And Kim Shelton, a single mom says: "Before I received custody of my son, my son was used to playing with guns."  She’s tried to change that but about two months ago saw her 11 year old playing on the street with a friend who had a replica gun. Seeing them from the upstairs window, she ran downstairs. "And said to him, I don’t ever want to see you playing with guns ever again because to me it looked a real gun. I was hysterical," she recounts.   

Joe Murfin, a spokesman for Daisy, the company that made the gun Colvin was carrying, warns their guns aren’t toys. "They are guns and they look like guns because they are guns and they shoot a steel projectile," he says.    

Daisy’s guns come with warnings that they shouldn’t be brandished in public and that adult oversight is required, but some still say these replica guns build a culture of gun possession.

And kids interpret what goes on around them in their own ways. That’s why Ericka Allston, who directs the Kids Safe Zone, has banned even water guns. She says, "Not on under my watch because regardless of  pink bubbles are coming out or green slime, kids will shoot to kill; it’s still a gun."

And beyond that, people are trying to figure out what can be done to change police-community relationships, so kids’ impulse is not to run.

Jonna is a radio producer, documentarian, and media artist. Her feature stories and audio documentaries have aired on WAMU, Marketplace, The World, Living on Earth, and Virginia Public Radio, among others. She also produces nonfiction films and installations using ethnography, archival research, and collaboration as part of her process. A Maryland native, Jonna is a graduate of Bowdoin College and holds an MFA from Duke University.