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'That's how a lot of these shootings happen ... over nothing'

By Will Okun, Special to CNN
  • Former Chicago high school teacher says guns were abundant in his school
  • All students in one class claimed to have access to handguns, he says
  • Gangs and illegal guns held communities hostage, writer says
  • "If we want to stop violence, we need to make real changes," one man says

Editor's note: Will Okun taught high school on the West Side of Chicago for nine years and is writing a novel for young adults.

(CNN) -- Chicago's longstanding ban on handguns, which the Supreme Court this week ruled as unconstitutional, was a complete failure.

Two years ago, every student in my first-period English class on the West Side of Chicago claimed to have easy access to a handgun -- even the goody-two-shoes Honors student in the front row. When I doubted her, she looked at me as if I were a fool. "I could get you one from my uncle tonight," she informed me with a quizzical look. "He might ask me why I needed it, might not."

Guns were so abundant that there was only, maybe, one big fight a year among the males in our school building because it was understood that the simplest of physical confrontations too quickly could escalate into deadly shootings. "You have to walk away from a lot," observed one former student of mine who has lost several friends and relatives to gun violence. "For instance, dude deserves to be beat and I know I could beat his ass, but then what? No one is just going to take an ass-beating, they're going to want to do something about it."

And he added, "Then you got to worry about him and his guys jumping on you. Or more than likely, he's going to get a gun to show that he's not a punk. That's how a lot of these shootings happen, it's over nothing."

Violence was so omnipresent that when I returned to school a few days after being shot in the arm with a .22 (I'd rather not discuss), a staggering number of students lifted their shirts to show their bullet wounds. "What you going to do?" they seemed to say with a shrug, as if this were everyday life.

In a city where an average of four people are shot every day, the random shooting death a few years ago of an amazing, beautiful person, Alto Brown, a friend of mine, was reduced to a single line in a three-paragraph newspaper story coldly tallying weekend homicides. "Everything happens for a reason," the pastor said at his funeral. "He's now in a better place."

As gangs and their illegal guns held whole communities hostage, it seemed as if the only people prevented from possessing firearms were citizens like Keith Thomas, who was raised on the West Side and now works as a mentor to at-risk youth for an alternatives schools program in Chicago

"I don't think anybody in their right mind would argue that more guns are a good thing," said Thomas, who has the scar from a bullet wound on his right wrist. "But I think the Supreme Court made the right decision. I think right now, at this point, the ban is not helping to serve any real purpose."

Thomas does not believe that the court's decision will result in significantly more or less violence, but he does hope that the ruling will force political leaders to seek community improvements beyond just strict gun control.

"It's not enough to just say we need more gun control. That's not what's causing all these problems out here, the guns are the result," he explained. "If we want to stop violence, we need to make real changes. That's a lot harder and requires a lot more money than just saying no guns."

In too many low-income communities of Chicago, the schools are in shambles, quality after-school programs are scarce, well-paying jobs are almost nonexistent, and the family structure is in full crisis. It is an easy notion to disregard, but many of these children are struggling daily to thrive in an environment that fosters failure.

"We have to get them early, before they start getting lost," Thomas said of the youth he advises, get them redirected with organizations like his and other successful mentoring interventions like the Youth Advocates Programs. "Once they start believing there's nothing else, that they have nothing to lose, they're the ones most likely to do the shooting."

After a recent weekend in which 10 people were killed and 60 wounded by gunfire, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley continued to argue the necessity of a citywide gun ban. "Look at all the guns that shot people this weekend. Where did they come from? That is the issue."

But one must ask, truly, is it?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Will Okun.