Those who follow the way of the gun have their many reasons. Just ask them.

"I know a person has 12 guns," he adds. "For protection, 'cause of Dukies [Crips] and Snoops. But they don't carry all 12 at once. They carry two at a time."

L'il Speedy cocks his head. "If they got a bookbag, they gonna carry all of them," he points out. "If they are going on a solo mission. To murder somebody." He says that if one guy in a gang gets beat up, they all come down to the projects, stake out Peabody or Cochran, wreak vengeance.

That's why he wants "one of them Army guns that shoot, like, a million bullets in a minute. 'Cause if it's you by yourself, and all of them got guns, you can just let go."

Jennifer Silverberg
Toni and Vic Meyer in the climate-controlled room that's chilling history
Jennifer Silverberg
Toni and Vic Meyer in the climate-controlled room that's chilling history

L8-L8 interrupts: "I know some person got shot in the head with a .22. My friend, a security guard killed him for no reason. And the police shot a boy and killed him. Shot him with a .38 special."

These boys grew up seeing guns -- sometimes in a cop's hand, sometimes an uncle's -- and they're obsessed with them, their thoughts a mix of fear, movie violence, revenge fantasies and real-life gore. They don't know a single adult male who doesn't pack heat as a matter of course. And that heat fascinates them, hypnotizes like flame. A gun represents adult male power, invulnerability, coolness in the fullest sense of the word.

Yet they all say the world is scarier, not safer, because of guns.

"This dude named Cedric, he and his friend were playing Russian Roulette," says L8-L8. "You shoot the gun, click, and he pulled the trigger and shot him in his brains. Didn't know it was loaded. Half his brain cells was dead -- he could barely talk."

L'il Speedy pulls down on the knit cap he wears even indoors.

"My homey named J-Loc, he's dead," he says.

"And Christian," offers Tweezy.

"There's Bill, that died in Cochran," says L8-L8. "And Shamar."

"My Uncle Wookie," says Tweezy.

"Oh yeah, Wookie died last summer," says L8-L8.

"Darren," says L'il Speedy.

'L'il Willie," says Choppa City. "A girl shot him in the head because he beat her brother up."

"People die every day over guns," L'il Speedy says, cutting into the list impatiently. "Dope fiend owing a dealer for some snow, work, crack, the dealer might kill him. And they losin' their life over colors. Blue and gold. Red. I can't walk down certain streets. I do, though. I walk anywhere I want. Martin Luther King ain't preached for nothin'."

He pauses.

"Course, now the blacks are fightin' each other."

L'il Speedy takes a deep breath and moves on to his next worry: gangbangers' guns.

"They do put them up when they're not using them. Maybe they got a cut, an open hole somewhere, like in a vacant house or a broken wall. But if they see the police, they scatter like mouses, and they just throw their gun someplace dark, someplace a little kid might find it."

Cherub-faced Damontai, who's been listening to every word, gestures to his tiny armpit: "If someone has one of those things they put their guns in and the police don't see them --" He's building to a 6-year-old's frenzy, getting confused with all the associations.

"All polices don't do the right thing, either," resumes L'il Speedy. "They get guns through dope deals. And crooked police give people guns to bust them."

Even the homeless guys who warm their hands on trashcan fires have guns, he adds. "They break in cars to steal them."

In 1997, the death rate from firearms for all males ages 15-24 was 38.9 per 100,000. Multiply that by three for African-American males, who died at a rate of 119.9 per 100,000.

Guns on the street don't make L'il Speedy feel any safer.

But he wants one.

L'il Speedy dreams about a fully automatic assault weapon, but the gun that's killing his friends is a Smith & Wesson .38. To the feds' amazement, these old-fashioned revolvers, perfected in 1940 and peaking in the '60s, remain the gun of choice on the streets of St. Louis. Cheaper than Glocks, more reliable than Saturday-night specials, they were used by police until the late '80s, and they fire bullets just slightly narrower than the .40 SIG Sauer semiautomatic that ATF agents carry.

Gangbangers don't see much of the ATF anyway. The federal agency's charge is to keep illegal guns off the street, but with only 11 agents in St. Louis, they can't begin to retrieve all the illegally sold and gotten firearms. Fewer than 10 percent of recovered crime guns are still in the hands of their legal buyers. Most slide through the hands of family, friends or illegal street dealers.

"Our biggest problem is straw purchases," says Doug Dawson, group supervisor for the St. Louis office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Thanks to the National Rifle Association lobby, individual gun owners can sell from their collections without doing any criminal background check. Thanks to loopholes and glitches in data retrieval, dealers can sell to someone if they don't hear back from the FBI within three days. Thanks to basic human greed, some dealers still sell knowingly to straw purchasers.

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