What do Bullets Really do to Bodies? Changing the Conversation on Gun Violence

by Kelly Macias –

How can we possibly talk about guns in a way that hasn’t been talked about before? If we didn’t change the debate after Sandy Hook when 20 children were killed, it’s doubtful that we’ll ever actually do it. That’s been my story and I’ve largely stuck to it for the last five years—until I read this piece about trauma surgeons at Temple University Hospital in North Philadelphia.

As a country,” Goldberg said, “we lost our teachable moment.” She started talking about the 2012 murder of 20 schoolchildren and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Goldberg said that if people had been shown the autopsy photos of the kids, the gun debate would have been transformed. “The fact that not a single one of those kids was able to be transported to a hospital, tells me that they were not just dead, but really really really really dead. Ten-year-old kids, riddled with bullets, dead as doornails.” Her voice rose. She said people have to confront the physical reality of gun violence without the polite filters. “The country won’t be ready for it, but that’s what needs to happen. That’s the only chance at all for this to ever be reversed.”

I confess that I agonized over how to write this as days turned into weeks. Words that normally come so easily to me for some reason wouldn’t stick, no matter how hard I tried. It was as if this piece, in particular, did not want to be written. But last week, I was assaulted by yet another barrage of names and faces of black people taken by gun violence—Jordan Edwards and Alton Sterling and Edward Crawford and whoever else’s name didn’t make it to the news. I felt exhausted, angry and weary but couldn’t really explain why.

Then several people were shot on a college campus in Dallas. The homicide rate in Baltimore, my hometown, jumped to 122 for this year alone. And finally, a memory from my childhood came to my mind so vividly and powerfully that I wasn’t really sure I could hold it together long enough to write. But I knew I had to because it’s time. It’s important to confront this epidemic head on—no matter how painful it is. Especially because of how we consistently do a bunch of hand wringing after all is said and done, but we don’t seem to really have enough courage to take it up as the serious issue it is. And maybe if we knew, if we really knew, what bullets did to bodies, we’d get off our asses and act.

I was 15 when my first friend died. And I don’t mean that in the sense that he was the first person that I knew who died, but in the sense that he was literally one of my very first friends.

Larry and I grew up together in Baltimore City. His uncle and my mother dated for almost a decade and we were attached at the hip for almost that entire time. I don’t remember exactly how old I was when they started dating but since my parents divorced when I was a toddler, it was definitely some time when I was in elementary school. I was an only child and Larry, who was a year or so older than me, took on a big brother and mentor role. Larry was rail thin, tall, and had asthma. He had a big toothy grin and loved to laugh. Back then, the only two words that could describe me would be short and chunky. He was awkward and so was I. We were loud and neither of us stopped talking. I’m not quite sure why it happened this way, but we were always together.

He had a big family and since mine was small and my parents had split up, I seemed to be with his family more often than not. And I loved it. They were smart, tight-knit, and classy. They were always eating, laughing, singing. There were grandparents, aunts, cousins, brothers, sisters, in-laws. To me, they were the Huxtables personified. There were weekend cookouts, family gatherings, and random road trips. And Larry and I were right there—in the middle of everything. We had big personalities and liked to hang out with the adults and listen to all the conversations we shouldn’t have. But we also had fun being kids. He taught me how to play tag, hide and go seek, and kickball. We were both smart and voracious readers so it was not uncommon for us to amuse ourselves at events and during long car rides by trying to spell out big words and trying to outdo one another with our budding intellects. We were inseparable.

Looking back, Larry was probably the first lesson in life I got that boys and girls could actually like each other platonically and genuinely be friends with one another with no strings attached. Because there were so many women in his family and in mine, and because my own father wasn’t around, it also meant the world to me that Larry demonstrated the kind of care and compassion to me that was so lacking from men in my life. While his uncle (my mother’s boyfriend) and I had a relationship that was closer to father-daughter, the connection and friendship that we had was indescribable. Though the world would later try to teach me something different about how black men show up in the world with black women, one of the first real relationships that I had with a black man in my life was with was Larry. I loved him like a brother and he fiercely loved and protected me like a little sister. And I was grateful.

In time, Larry and I grew apart. There was nothing in particular that facilitated it—just a gradual drifting apart, a function of things that were out of our control. After a decade or so of a very rocky, off-and-on romance, my mother and his uncle parted ways. Years after they split, my mother got married to someone else and his uncle did too. It was not an amicable split. And as is common in these types of events, though our families were close at one time, there was really no reason for us to stay in touch. Still, somewhere in the back of my head, I cherished the memories I had of Larry. Especially because as I was becoming a young woman, I was beginning to learn about boys and figuring out relationships.

Those early interactions with Larry were very much my references for how I was learning to understand male-female relationships and in some ways I think as I was looking for a boyfriend, I was always comparing him to Larry, or who I had imagined Larry had become as a teenager.

When I was a junior in high school, one day I was at home from school when the phone rang. It was my mother. She was calling to tell me that she had received a call from Larry’s uncle, Michael. Larry had been killed. He had gone out to the store to get hair dye for his grandmother. He was in the parking lot when he was approached by a group of boys or men who tried to rob him because they wanted his leather jacket. Apparently, he didn’t take it off fast enough. He was in the process of taking it off when they shot him.

That part took a long while to sink in. He was complying and they shot him anyway. When his uncle, my mother’s ex-boyfriend, went to identify the body (his parents were too devastated to do it), he said that the look on Larry’s face was one of terror—pure fear. I still remember this moment, the phone call, like it was yesterday. All I could do was stare out the window of my bedroom in my parent’s house and clutch the phone in shock as my mother shared the details. I was hearing her and yet I wasn’t completely sure what was happening. I knew that Larry was now gone and I also knew that his death made him yet another statistic. Another young black man whose life was snuffed short. Another victim of gun violence.

My 15-year-old brain had a hard time reconciling losing my childhood friend for many reasons, but especially because one of the lessons I had learned early on was that if you were good and did the right things that you would be shielded from bad things happening to you. But Larry was doing the right thing and he still died anyway. As black folk, many of us have been inculcated with the notion that if we are respectable—that if we do the right things, say the right things, dress the right way, we will be protected from this kind of thing. This was the first time I learned the very hard lesson that it simply doesn’t matter. Gun violence touches us all. This is a fact of life in the United States and it is more likely to be true if you are black.

It broke my heart. It broke my heart so much that I could not tell my friends, who were mostly white at the time, about it. It continues to break my heart. The very first heartbreak I remember did not come from being dumped as a teenager or a relationship that did not work out. It came when my innocence was forever shattered by the bullets that took Larry’s life.

Though I have tried to block it out, I’ve spent countless hours over the last 23 years imagining the details of what the bullets did to my childhood friend Larry’s body. I often wonder how many times they actually pierced his beautiful, cinnamon-colored skin. I am not sure which part of his body he was shot in. Though I am not certain if my mother told me this specific detail on the March day in 1994 that she called me to tell me that my friend was dead, if she did, it is now lost in the fog of my memory. I have rarely spoken about Larry since. Perhaps it is that I no longer want to remember the details. But he comes to my mind every time I hear a story about gun violence on TV.

It is particularly vivid when I see the face a young black man whose life was cut short by gun violence. I imagine how bullets entered Larry’s long legs and arms and pounded into his flesh, puncturing his veins and arteries. Turning his bones into dust and taking his smile and promise and adolescence away forever. Taking away his dreams. Taking him away from that big, amazing, boisterous and loving family permanently. Making plans for an eventual reunion between the two of us impossible. Freezing Larry forever in time as a young man, as an honor student and the tall, skinny kid I used to play tag with in the streets of Baltimore City. To my knowledge, they never did find his killers.

Almost everyone knows someone who has died but there is nothing that can prepare you for when gun violence touches your life. It is not like TV or a video game where you can remain disconnected from the victims. It’s not even like when someone you love is taken by an illness or an accident—as devastating and sad as that is. When the body of a person you love and adore is met with the kind of unspeakable violence that bullets are capable of, it not only rips apart their flesh, it rips you apart as well. It’s a gaping wound that can never be made whole. It’s an unimaginable trauma. It’s a trauma that doesn’t give a damn about being polite.

Just like the bullets rip through the fibers and tissues and vessels and organs and bones of our loved ones, so too do they rip through the hearts and souls and minds and psyches of those left behind. It is a horrific trauma—one that I wish on no one. And yet in sharing this, it is my hope that people become familiar with what bullets do to bodies (both their victims and loved ones), so that they may think differently about this problem.

As I write this, I think about the fact that this will be published on Mother’s Day. And I imagine all of the mothers who have lost their own children to gun violence. I am especially thinking this Mother’s Day about Larry’s mother, Paula. I think of the fathers, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, and other persons who have lost loved ones. But mainly, I’m thinking of how Larry would have been in his early forties by now.

Every once in a while, I wonder what he would have looked like had he lived. Would he have had grey hair yet? Would his rail-thin frame have been replaced by the paunch of a middle-aged man? Would he have still had the big, toothy smile I remember from my childhood?

There are days that it is easier to remember Larry than others. Some days I get a flash of memory that makes me want to laugh—of us arguing about who won our last round of go fish, or dreaming about what we wanted to be when we got older.  Other days I have a memory, mainly recalling how he died or what could have been, that fills me with immense sadness and grief.

But every memory is worth remembering—both of Larry and of the bullets that took his body, so that I do not remain numb to the horrific acts of gun violence in this country. I hope that you will not remain numb, either.


Reprinted with permission from Think Progress, a branch of The Center for American Progress