From a certain perspective, Gary Younge says in his new book, “America really is exceptional.” It’s not a compliment. He’s talking about gun deaths, and he’s not wrong when he calls the U.S. an outlier. In this country, Younge writes, “teens are seventeen times more likely to die from gun violence than their peers” in similarly affluent countries.
With Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives, Younge, a veteran reporter for The Guardian, concedes that the history of America’s pathological relationship with guns might be too big a topic for a single book. Instead, he focuses on the young lives lost on a single autumn day in 2013. It’s not an anomaly that 10 Americans under the age of 20 would be shot to death within a 24-hour period, as happened on Nov. 23 of that year. “Every day, on average,” he notes, “7 children and teens are killed by guns; in 2013 it was 6.75 to be precise.”
In an interview at his publisher’s Manhattan office, Younge discussed the global perception of American gun culture, what he’s learned from talking to parents who’ve lost children to firearms, and why he thinks the media isn’t very good at covering gun violence.
You say that this “is not a book about gun control; it is a book made possible by the absence of gun control.” You’re British, and you reported on America for 12 years. At what point did you start thinking that there was a book to be written about this?
There were two things I didn’t get about America. One was gun culture, and the other was health care. I could follow the debates, but just as a culture…
The absence of real gun control, and the absence of guaranteed health care.
Yeah, there’s no other Western country like it in those terms. It wasn’t obvious to me how gun control wasn’t happening. There’d be a mass shooting, you’d be sent off to cover it, and it was limited what you could really say. Everyone was really sad. President Bush would say: This is no time for politics, hug your children, let’s all pray. And then you move on. I covered mass shootings at Virginia Tech and Red Lake, in Minnesota, and it always felt like more or less the same thing. And then I did this exercise for The Guardian magazine in 2007, and I felt like this could be a book.
The exercise you’re talking about became a piece called A Day in the Death of America. Is that when you decided that gun violence in America is so common that it’s impossible to cover in a macro way?
I just thought that this was a way of burrowing down on specific, unremarkable stories that become remarkable when you put them all together. The statistics are quite shocking—even, I think, to Americans. To people outside of America, they’re just completely mind-blowing. But I’m not capable of writing a story about gun control.
From a legislative angle?
Yeah, it’s not the kind of thing I do. My wife is American and my kids are American, but to be British and do that would count you out of the game almost immediately. Also, there’s something sterile about the polemics that take place around this issue. Everybody dives in on the Second Amendment: You’re a murderer, or you’re a pansy.
You write about how likely Americans under 20 are to die from guns, and you say that the odds are “exponentially worse for black children like my own.” Becoming a parent in the States clearly changed your perspective on this issue.
It’s impossible for me not to imagine how one of my kids would be written about if they were killed. You ask black parents who’ve lost children to guns: Did you think this could’ve happened? And to a person, they say: Yeah. I’m a parent of a black boy. I actually think that Britain is a much more violent country. The town where I grew up, Friday or Saturday night, people get drunk, they’re out there—it’s not like Americans are more violent, or more criminal. But there’s just this thing that can do a lot of damage, and it’s called a gun.
Jaiden Dixon, we learn from your book, was 9 when he was shot to death by his mother’s ex in Ohio. He liked to play the game Battleship. Tyler Dunn, who was 11 when he died in an apparent accident with a shotgun in Michigan, liked to ride dirt bikes. The statistics you cite tell us about real people—often very young people—but sometimes this gets lost.
I said to my editor: How do we make this not an unrelenting tale of woe? We decided that I would tell the story of their lives. Their lives won’t be woeful—their deaths will be, but their lives won’t be. Or not necessarily. Statistically, it’s not true to say: Look, these could be your children. Because if you’re wealthy—particularly if you’re wealthy and white—it’s unlikely that they will be your children. But are they actually so different from your kids, or kids who you know? Are their parents so different? Take a minute and see who these kids are.
You lived in Chicago when the city’s murder rate became a national story. What are some of the other underreported factors that can help us put crime statistics like these into context?
I think if you have terrible schools, if you have no youth services, if you have no place for teenagers to go, then you’re kind of asking for trouble. Throw onto that tinder a massive amount of poverty; segregation, which is the barrier to empathy; and guns. You have a situation where these areas are both heavily policed and poorly served by police. The policing happens to them, not with them. I think it’s just not that surprising that that’s where people get killed.
When you think of how long America has been a nonracial democracy, which is 50 years, as opposed to an apartheid state for 100 years, and a slave state for 200 years, it’s not that amazing that the most intractable social problems will occur among African-Americans, who happen to also be the poorest people. Those things are connected.
You mention Jill Leovy’s book, Ghettoside, which got a lot of good reviews last year. You say that she “claims that African-Americans avoid discussion of (urban gun violence) because they know how conservatives will distort such a discussion.” But that’s not what you found in your reporting.
No, I didn’t. That was pretty much all they talked about. People don’t mention race and racism, and they don’t mention poverty. The mantra is: Why don’t these people, rather than blaming police or talking about racism, take care of what’s going on in their own backyard? Actually, I saw quite a few people who were trying to do that, and I didn’t find anybody who wanted to absolve kids of their personal responsibility in this matter. Quite the opposite.
Do you think the American media does a good job of covering gun violence?
I don’t, and as I feel like being a journalist, I understand why they don’t. If there’s an area where people keep being shot, then each time there’s a shooting, in crude news values, it becomes less of a story. It’s like: How big does a bomb have to be in Syria now, how many people have to die for it to make the news? They keep upping the stakes. I do get it, I just think there has to be a kind of resistance to accepting the unacceptable. I guess the bottom line is, if those newspaper offices were populated by people who lived in those areas, then these would be different kinds of stories.
Gangs aren’t new, and they’re not unique to one racial group. But “what is new is that in recent years gang have become more deadly than ever,” you write. “According to the National Youth Gang Survey, between 2007 and 2012 gang membership rose 8 percent, and gang-related homicides leapt 20 percent.” This is another statistic that speaks to the easy accessibility of guns.
One of the easiest ways to shock Americans when I first came here was to tell them that our policemen (in Britain) don’t have guns. Because if nobody’s got guns, then the policemen don’t have guns. But when everybody starts having guns, the logic is, well, I’m going to need a gun.
And police departments respond with armored vehicles and military-style equipment.
Right. I remember the first day of my son’s new term in school in Chicago. They have this thing in Chicago called Safe Passage, which is to get kids through gang lines. It’s almost like the Underground Railroad, where a kid will be walked to a certain point, and then another adult will take over. On this first day, there were firemen and other people doing the walking. I remember just being shaken out of my complacency. I’m just thinking: Where else in the Western world does this happen? This is what you would do in a warzone. This is crazy.
How does this change? How do we make it so seven people under 20 don’t die every day from guns?
I don’t know. I end the book by saying I want to scream. Partly, I want to scream at the individual kids: Don’t do that! But partly, it’s an impotent scream. I’ve been here long enough to feel it’s unlikely that anything is going to happen.
Because of the money at stake in the gun industry?
The power of the gun lobby, partly, yeah. It’s a big business. The gun rights people have a narrative about independence and homestead and masculinity. The gun control people kind of don’t.
But as you say in the book, people who keep a gun in their home because they want to defend themselves—that gun is more likely to be used on a member of that family than it is on an intruder. That’s a narrative, or the makings of one.
When I say to someone from the NRA: I’m British, I don’t get it, explain it to me. And they will immediately say to me: Do you have a wife? Do you have children? Imagine someone breaks into your house.
Actually, you’re more likely to be shot to death by someone you know. But that’s an argument as opposed to a narrative. There are all these arguments that make perfect sense. The one that makes the most sense to me is that in no other country would this be possible. This is a can-do country, it’s supposed to be. Any argument you put to me, I’m going to say: Well, every other country has managed to control guns, and you’re the country that can, too.
You’ve recently moved back to England for “banal, personal reasons,” as you said in a Guardian piece from last year. Is American gun violence something that comes up when you talk to neighbors and friends back home?
There was this moment in Britain. We went to see some friends who live in the hills, in Derbyshire. We don’t allow our son to have toy guns in the house, which just means he goes to other people’s houses and plays with theirs. This kid, in his house, had these toy guns, and there’s this moment where my son and the boy go running out into the hills with the toy guns. And as they go running out, my wife, who’s African-American, and I were worried. But then I said, No, it’s OK here, because no one is going to assume that’s a real gun. The Tamir Rice dystopia just doesn’t exist.