Last May, a photo flitted across my Twitter feed. It was posted by a 22-year-old recent graduate of Kent State named Kaitlin Bennett.
In graduation photos that Viceland called “fun and flirty,” Bennett—a young white woman in a white sundress and heels—presented herself as a poster child for the gun lobby. She went on to appear on Fox and Friends and got respectful coverage in the Washington Post and other mainstream outlets. Her gun read as a political statement or provocation.
As it happened, I was spending a lot of time with young people with guns that spring. But they were nobody’s poster children. They were Bennett’s age or younger, but they were black and male, and in their hands, guns read as violent and threatening. If they flashed one on social media, the cops showed up at their door and a criminal prosecution followed. My new book Charged tells their stories, and so does a podcast with the same name that Slate is launching Wednesday.
When gun control advocates discuss how to restrict access to lethal weapons, they mostly talk about permit requirements and background checks. But that coin has another side: punishment for people accused of possessing guns without the state’s permission. In January 2016, Mayor Bill de Blasio established a specialized gun court in Brooklyn to fast-track the city’s “remaining evildoers”—his words—to prison. Almost all of them faced the most serious possible charge for possession of an illegal loaded gun, which in New York carried a minimum sentence of 3½ years in prison and a maximum of 15 years. In theory, the mayor’s initiative was a tough-minded solution to gun violence that anti-gun liberals and law-and-order conservatives could unite behind.
Two and a half years ago, I started visiting the Brooklyn gun court to see how it was working.
I thought I’d find horrific stories of gun violence and hardened evildoers, like de Blasio said. Instead, over many months of my reporting, I found hundreds of teenagers and young people, almost all of them black, being marched to prison not for firing a gun, or even pointing one, but for having one. Many of them had minimal criminal records. To be precise, when I went through 200 case files, I found that 70 percent of the defendants in gun court had no previous felony convictions.
Here’s what predicted who ended up on the benches in gun court: race and age. Black people are less likely to own guns than white people, but the defendants in gun court were almost all black teenagers and young men. An initiative that sounded like a targeted attack on America’s gun problem looked up close more like stop-and-frisk or the war on drugs—one more way to round up young black men. Reviewing my book in the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik suggested that a kid locked up for a drug offense would have made a more representative subject. But drug charges are the old way of shunting people to prison. Gun possession, and similar offenses that states treat as violent, is the new way. And the 20-year-old whose case I followed wasn’t “the wrong kid” from the point of view of the system or the politicians that built it. His case was typical in gun court, because he was exactly the kind of person the mayor’s plan was designed to ensnare.
Defendants in gun court often said they had guns for “protection,” a classic Second Amendment argument. They saw them as a means of defense. There’s a heartbreaking element to this, because the guns don’t deliver on that promise of protection. They make things more dangerous. And yet the guns retained their allure as a kind of costume—a way to signal that the person who has one is not prey.
I’m all for laws requiring gun permits. There’s evidence that they reduce gun deaths. But favoring gun permits doesn’t tell you what to do when gun owners don’t have them. Most of the debate over guns in America pits the need to restrict gun ownership against the right to bear arms. There’s a crucial piece missing: Why do people have illegal guns, and how should the state respond?
I don’t think any of us, on either side of the gun debate, have collectively considered those questions. If we’re going to tackle the crisis of gun violence, or the crisis of mass incarceration, we have to start.
That’s why I wrote Charged, and it’s why we’ve made this podcast as a companion to it, based on months of additional reporting. We’re going to tell you the story of a defendant in the gun court named Tarari, along with the stories of other people whose lives intersect with his. The final surprise to me was finding that young people in gun court don’t just surrender to the system. They maneuver within it. And a few of them find a way out.
This podcast isn’t a story in the true-crime genre. It’s what comes next: a true punishment story.