Guns are easily accessible for minors in the state of Georgia. Cartoon by Sunčana Pavlić.
With what some may consider to be lax gun laws in the state of Georgia, the issue of gun accessibility for minors arises.
On April 20, 1999, the nation turned its eye to the fact that kids under the age of 18 can, and do, access guns.
The Columbine High School massacre, the 13th deadliest mass shooting since 1949, changed the American political landscape around gun control discussions.
Eighteen years later, these discussions show no sign of slowing down or being resolved — and not just on the national level.
GUNS KEEP THE COMMUNITY UNDER FIRE
In July, the Athens community learned of the death of a former Clarke Central High School student, 16-year-old Tremell Barnett. According to authorities, Tremell was listening to music in the car with a gun and accidentally fired it.
“It happened out of nowhere, like out of the blue. I got a call he got shot in the head. I was just waking up ‘cause I had gone to practice that morning and I woke up and got a call around 3:21 (a.m.),” senior Jarvis Clark, Barnett’s cousin, said. “My heart just dropped through my phone. I sat there for a minute, and I had went to the hospital and it was true.”
Athens-Clarke County School Resource Officer Jamal Chambers sympathizes with Tremell’s loved ones, but feels his death was representative of a bigger issue.
“That one student who wound up losing his life, playing with a handgun, is being squeezed by society saying it’s a cool thing to do because everybody’s doing it on Facebook, Kik, all social media aspects,” Chambers said. “Not learning proper gun safety led to him losing his life. Proper gun safety would’ve told him he shouldn’t have had the weapon in the first place, but the society that he’s in says it’s a cool thing to have.”
A few months later at the Cedar Shoals High School vs. CCHS football game on Sept. 22 at CCHS, a 13-year-old student was found with a gun and taken into custody.
“There’s still an investigation. What we do know is that some students saw some business that they knew wasn’t right. They alerted an administrator,” Chambers said. “The administrator alerted the campus and other students on campus started noticing some business and they brought it to light. That’s how we got ahead of that situation.”
While this incident does not fall under CCHS’ disciplinary purview since the minor was not a CCHS student, it does bring up the same issue — minors’ access to guns and the consequences.
CCSD TAKES AIM
Under the administration of former Clarke County School District Superintendent Dr. Philip Lanoue, “zero tolerance” became the defining statement on CCSD’s weapons policy. According to the 2017-2018 CCSD Student Code of Conduct, which upholds this policy, “A student who is determined to have possessed a firearm or dangerous weapon at school or (a) school-sponsored function shall be expelled from school for a period of not less than one calendar year.”
“That’s kind of like a ‘no tolerance policy’. If there’s a gun, then there’s automatically a referral to a CCSD disciplinary hearing with recommendation for expulsion,” CCHS Principal Marie Yuran said.
Clayton State University Lecturer LaKeisha Gantt, a former CCSD Behavior Specialist and CCSD parent, believes that discussions around discipline have to involve zero tolerance, but thinks that the policy has issues that could prohibit its effectiveness.
“Zero tolerance often missed the mark. So, there is a lot of talk in the literature about the role zero tolerance in disproportionate discipline practices. So, with certain groups having the harsher consequences,” Gantt said. “What I found in my role with Clarke County is that (the problem with) zero tolerance, is more so the application of zero tolerance. It doesn’t appear to be consistent across populations. I think that is truly where some of the attention has to be. That’s where some of the problem is.”
Whether because of zero tolerance or because of other elements, ACC Police Department team leader Terry Reid says the number of gun incidents at CCHS has remained relatively low.
“We’ve had some weapons issues. Had one student bring a gun, and that’s the first one in 15 years. That was last school term,” Reid said.
A November poll of 541 CCHS students also offers a different perspective from Reid’s account. When asked if they had personally seen a student bring a gun to school, 12 percent of polled students said they had.
Although Yuran believes in the vigilance of the CCHS security team, in response to these numbers, she feels security has its limits.
“Anybody can bring anything, any day of the week technically to anywhere we are in this world, whether it’s on campus, whether it’s in the grocery store,” Yuran said. “Unfortunately, we can’t control what people bring in here. We can only respond to information that we are made aware of.”
When he was in middle school, sophomore Brett Carter* brought a gun to school, but school officials were alerted.
“I was trying to act tough, and I brought a gun and showed everybody in the bathroom. I got caught. They sent me to (Ombudsman Educational Services),”
Carter said. “One of my friends had (the gun) and I got it. He (had) an older brother that has a lot of guns, so I guess he got it from his older brother.”
LIMITING ACCESS TO GUNS PROVES TO BE A LONG SHOT
In the state of Georgia, according to O.C.G.A. § 16-11-101.1, those under the age of 18 are not legally allowed to own or purchase a gun under general circumstances. But, these laws can be circumvented.
Under O.C.G.A. § 16-11-132, minors can possess handguns when attending a hunter education course or a firearms safety course, practicing the use or a firearm or target shooting, engaging in organized competition, engaging in hunting or fishing, traveling to and from any of the activities above and with the permission of a parent or legal guardian at their residence.
In the same November poll of 541 students, 53 percent said they knew someone under the age of 18 who possessed a gun or could easily access one. How minors access firearms can be a more complicated question. Chambers feels that the stolen weapons market is a significant driver in gun accessibility for minors.
“In Clarke County, we have a upswing of home break-ins and vehicle break-ins. So, a lot of people not thinking, traveling on the road, may stop in Athens to go to a service station or Downtown and they have their weapon underneath the seat,” Chambers said. “They continue on down the road without realizing that weapon is no longer there. We’ve had a couple of those. Once the weapon is circulated in the community, it’s all about commodity and how much it would take to purchase that weapon or what do you have to trade to get that weapon.”
According to Reid, Southern culture also makes guns easily accessible to minors and increases the chance of them taking or using the firearm, especially when they feel scared or threatened.
“I would imagine that high a percent of the people in the building are aware they can go someplace — cousin, grandma, or home — and say, ‘There’s a gun there,’ because this is the South. I mean, we’ve always had weapons in our homes. But we never thought the teenagers were going to start removing them, carrying them on their person just for intimidation,” Reid said. “It’s causing a lot of young lives to be taken because they don’t know how to handle that, or they’re pretending to the wrong person, who was well-qualified at defending themselves.”
THE ATTRACTION TO GUNS DEFINED
Chambers says kids might be attracted to guns because of how having one is perceived by peers.
“With a lot of youth, it’s cool to have weapons because society has somewhat pictured it as a great thing to do. ‘This guy is a serious person because he has this weapon. He’s gonna take it to that next level,’” Chambers said. “So, we’re dealing with something that’s driven by society, itself.”
Social media platforms can exacerbate this. Chambers says many teens pictured with weapons online were reported by others.
“We’ve had various investigations involving youth brought to our attention by other youth and also community leadership about (youth displaying weapons online),” Chambers said. “Social media kinda inflames (the issue) a little bit because it’s that one-up mentality. He’s got a knife. I’ve got a gun.”
Senior Diego Jones* agrees that social media plays a part in teen gun culture. However, Jones believes that kids who flaunt weapons online do not actually have plans to use them.
“Some kids are just gonna want to get one and show it off. Ones that have it usually don’t show it off. Ones that are using it are not going to show it off,” Jones said. “The kids that are flexing aren’t going to use it.”
Reasons that minors have guns are varied. While working at Gaines Elementary School, Student Support Technician Jennifer Hollman spoke with a young student whose father gave him a handgun.
“We were talking about safety, and one of the eight year olds there said he had a gun that his dad gave to him. He’s fired the gun. His dad gave it to him for protection,” Hollman said. “I tried to explain to him that it was very dangerous and that he could be sleeping in the house and his dad comes in and he doesn’t know his dad is in there and he could shoot his dad. He said he was just doing what his dad told him.”
In her work, Gantt has not spoken with many students who brought weapons (not including guns) to school, but in those few instances, Gantt noticed a behavioral pattern.
“A lot of the students that I met with, I wasn’t meeting with them because they brought a weapon on campus. But, reflecting on the very, very few that ever got suspended or expelled for that, it was not a gun. In those cases, often times the student (who brought a weapon) felt unsafe. Not saying that’s all the time, but that is certainly an element there,” Gantt said. “I really think we have to look at why students bring weapons. We can’t just assume that everyone that brings a weapon is an aggressor.”
In her experience, CCHS Associate Principal Amanda Gorham has seen students with weapons who brought them accidentally or for protection.
“It could be something in the neighborhood. Fear of specific things and specific people. A lot of weapons that I’ve confiscated over the years (are from students who) forget that the knife they went hunting with this weekend is in the bookbag. So, somehow it falls out and somebody notices it and reports it and then we have to deal with it accordingly,” Gorham said. “It’s been very rare that someone has brought a weapon to school to attack somebody at school.”
As an avid hunter, senior Ben Gillespie got his first gun when he was 10 years old from his great-grandfather once he passed away. Throughout the years, Gillespie was gifted several other guns by his father. As an owner, Gillespie believes that he and his family take proper safety precautions.
“We always keep them on safety and unloaded in a closet at home. I’m careful with it when I use it,” Gillespie said. “Most people (at CCHS) probably don’t own guns and I don’t think anyone with a gun would bring it.”
UP AGAINST THE GUN — AND THE COURTS
Senior Ikechukwu Obi-Okoye feels that if he saw a student with a gun, he would take action.
“I probably would tell them not to bring it and if they kept on bringing it, I probably would (report it). (Whether) it was a stranger or a friend, I probably would do the same thing,” Obi-Okoye said. “Some kids report it and some might not depending on their character.”
Unlike Obi-Okoye, Chambers says many students might feel nervous and subsequently pressured out of reporting other teens.
“(Kids sometimes think) ‘I know what he’s doing is wrong because my parents taught me that, but if I do that, then I’m no longer cool with my friends. Now, they can’t trust me and if they can’t trust me, then they’re not going to want to hang around me.’ That’s the influence they’re dealing with,” Chambers said. “Even though they know it’s the right thing to do and it may save somebody’s life or stop somebody from being injured, the near fact that I gotta come back into that clique and admit what I did, even though it was the right thing, it was the wrong thing in their eyes.”
Yuran hopes that through communication between the student body, the community and the school, safety will continue to be a primary goal.
“(Safety) is what we work towards every day to ensure. I would hope people would feel safe in knowing that if somebody had something here that they weren’t supposed to have — a weapon of some kind — that they would be report it and that they would feel safe enough to report it,” Yuran said. “If it ever gets to a point to where people don’t feel like adults in the building (are trustworthy), then we’ve got something else that we need to work on in our culture.”
The ACC Police Department offers resources for youth to learn more about firearms, firearm safety and preventative measures.
“(We have) a summer camp (where we stress gun safety), but also, we do a program called Ignorance of the Law where I address the possession of stolen weapons or any weapon if you’re underage and any aspect of the law,” Chambers said. “I also teach that at the Boys and Girls Club where I encourage you not to have a weapon, what would happen if you had that weapon and without the proper training, what could happen with that weapon. Now, this is (America) and you have the right to bear arms, but with that right comes responsibility.”
If prevention fails and a minor is caught with a gun, officials in the juvenile court system will consider the minor’s circumstances and work on a rehabilitative program.
“In the juvenile side of (the criminal system), they have layers. Part of those layers is counseling and evaluation to try and understand why you did what you did and how we can correct it,” Chambers said. “Before you come out of the juvenile system, hopefully you hit one of those layers and redirect that behavior. If not, then we will be dealing with the criminal side of it. That’s pretty much the last thing we want to do.”