The proliferation of guns in the old neighborhood had a big impact on the social dynamic.
Suddenly everybody had access to a trump card, and that raised the stakes dramatically. People started thinking twice about fights, always worried that a black eye might touch off a shootout.
Whenever conflicts started brewing the first question was “is he strapped?” And if he was, “where is it?”, because a pistol in the trunk isn’t any good if you’re getting beat in the street.
If I had to guess, I’d say the proliferation of guns in the city in the late-1980s and 1990s correlates nicely with the rise of crack-dealing as a career option in the downtown area.
Crack is cheap and simple and easy to get rid of, and it democratized drug dealing like never before. With the rise of independent crack pushers came a need for protection on the street. That led to booming demand for stolen guns, and a supply naturally sprang up to fill it. Once dealers—and their homeboys, and their homeboys’ homeboys—started packing heat, the arms race was on.
If you want to be a tough guy, and all the other tough guys have pistols, you better do the same. And so one of the spillover effects of a democratized drug trade was a game of firearms one-upmanship, made possible by a vibrant market for stolen guns that served the security needs of street-level dealers.
I was 14 the first time I shot a gun. It was a snubnose .38 revolver. Capone had stolen it from his grandpa, and we’d bust it on the freeway just south of the city.
I bought my own first pistol when I was 17. Big Man had stolen a beat up .9mm from a friend’s house, and I gave him $175 for it. It was one of the pre-ban models that held 17 shots.
Over the next 6 months we probably shot off 1,000 rounds, carrying it from morning to night in the front of my pants.
Once you carry a pistol for a while, you realize that the safety it provides is partly an illusion. I remember coming home at night, putting the pistol in a drawer and thinking “this thing is going to kill me someday,” and being completely serious about that. In a lot of ways I felt less safe packing heat, and knew if I lost control of it it’d be bad news. But at the time it felt necessary if we wanted to never lose, and set ourselves apart from the rest of the schmucks who got their asses kicked in the neighborhood.
Unfortunately, a pistol in my belt always made it more likely that conflicts would escalate.
Somebody would be disrespectful, and after a while you’d get lazy and just reach under your shirt and say “you fuck, i’m going put a slug in your fucking head,” and that pretty much ended things. No more fighting.
The price, of course, is constant paranoia—both of going to jail and pulling a strap on the wrong kid and getting in a shootout.
The first time I got caught by the police with a pistol I was 18.
Somebody tipped off the local cops that we were driving around flashing a pistol. We got pulled over for no real reason, and the cops ordered four of us out of the car, hands up. This was on a main avenue in our neighborhood, during rush hour traffic. With all of us spread out on the ground, they tore the car apart, throwing everything out into the street, until they found the two pistols under my dashboard. One of the cops says “bingo”, then unloads them, carries them over to his car, and puts them in his trunk.
Then he uncuffs us, got in his cruiser and left.
We were dumbfounded. What was going on is that he knew it was an illegal search and would have no case against us in court. We would’ve walked away clean. By taking them away, he achieved his goal of disarming us and didn’t have to waste a night on paperwork.
I ran into that same cop almost 10 years later. It was a weird circumstance: I saw a drunk-driving hit and run outside my place, and had chased down the guy and called police on my cell phone. He was the officer that responded, now a captain, still working the same westside beat.
I looked at him for a minute, and said “so, still working this area, huh?” And he turns like a shot and gives me this serious look, and says “D”?
I tell him about college and writing and how things are different and how I’m moving out of the neighborhood. I told him that putting the smack-down on us back in the day might’ve saved my life.
He sat quiet, listening. Then, with a completely sober face he says “so what’s Capone up to these days?”, as if he hadn’t heard anything I’d just said.
I think for a minute, and tell him Capone and I don’t talk much anymore. He looks me up and down and says “Tell that sunofabitch I’m still watching him.”
He gets in his cruiser and leaves. I go home, thinking how some things never change.