A Convicted Murderer's Case for Gun Control

Why a man serving 28 years to life at the Attica Correctional Facility believes a few simple laws could significantly affect criminal behavior
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Jorge Silva/Reuters

It was swift and cowardly.

Defenseless, distracted by music, Alex sat in the passenger seat of the rental as I made my way to the trunk. I remembered Frankie’s words: “It’s loaded, cocked, and the safety is off. All you have to do is pull the trigger.”

At that point in our lives, Alex and I, both in our early twenties, were gun-toting thugs immersed in gangster culture. We were out on bail for separate gun charges. A few years before, Alex had been acquitted of murder for allegedly shooting a woman through the peephole of a Brooklyn housing project door. After that, his reputation preceded him.

On that night I knew Alex had been extorting a man who sold drugs for me. It sounds sick but part of me aspired to murder because it’s considered an accomplishment in gangster culture -- it would enhance my reputation, complete my image. Yet another part of me knew this culture was foul and murder was horrible.

Despite the Xanax dulling my emotions, my heart pounded when I picked up the M-16. A surge of power rushed through me when I felt the trigger. I pointed in the driver’s side window ... and squeezed.

Arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to a jarring 28 years to life at Attica, I entered prison. For many years I sifted through a host of rationalizations, but today I accept responsibility. I’m sorry for killing Alex, sorry for taking all the life he could have had.

With this in mind, I wish to add some perspective to the gun-control debate. My first gun was a chrome .25 caliber automatic with a pink, pearl handle. It was beautiful. But it was a killing machine, and at 14 years old I had the same hole in my heart that President Obama, in a Chicago speech, stated other child killers had. I had no business with that gun. Yet making guns accessible to troubled souls is business as usual in America.

Here’s how the game works. Criminals manipulate people with clean records -- cash-strapped students, vulnerable women, drug addicts -- to buy guns for them in states with minimal oversight, like Virginia. The criminal transports the guns to New York, then resells them or trades them for drugs that he’ll take back to Virginia to sell. This was the hustle when I was out in the ‘90s. I’m sure some form of it still continues.

However, since the Senate -- the most undemocratic aspect of our government -- halted gun legislation in April, the nation has moved on. But the shootings and killings in the world I know have continued and will continue unless we refocus on the root of the problem: our gun culture, and the easy access it affords criminals. Background checks for killing machines cannot be rudimentary, where criminals know every step -- the rules of the game I describe have to change.

Disconnected Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, says, “Criminals do not submit to background checks now. They will not submit to expanded background checks.” Grassley’s full-scale alternative gun measures, which focused on funding prosecutions for illegal gun possessions rather than background checks, helped derail the legislation in April. Aggressive prosecutions are punishment measures that, frankly, do not deter criminals from acquiring, possessing, or killing with guns. Conversely, intensifying background checks will change the game and spook those who buy guns for criminals. This will deter so-called straw purchases.

Government should also create a system that tracks gun-purchasing patterns. Credit-card companies already respond to irregular spending patterns—I used to shop with stolen credit cards, and when the employee at the register said, “I have to call the company,” I knew the jig was up. Similarly, it should raise red flags when a person who has never bought a gun suddenly buys five handguns. If the buyer is, for example, purchasing the guns for a drug dealer in the parking lot, he or she will be shaken if the sales clerk says something like, “We have to call and document this purchase with a new agency.”

Courtesy John Lennon

Likewise, it’s bizarre that the bazaars selling guns aren’t regulated. Websites like Armslist.com provide a buffet of leads for charismatic criminals to buy guns from private sellers. These sites are like perpetual gun shows, which are truly the ultimate forums to make connections for criminals who blend in well -- like me.

Bottom line, criminals create an indirect demand for gun manufacturers and merchandisers. For most criminals, purchasing a gun isn’t a one-shot deal. I had two separate gun-possession charges before I killed with an assault rifle. These are my convictions, but they hardly represent the number of guns I went through during my criminal career.

Engulfed in an orgy of violence, my last month of freedom was chaos. Home invasions, robberies, murder -- at the center of it all were guns: They would be disposed of, tossed after shoot-outs, then bought again. Easily. And I always bought new guns, so the notion that criminals just use stolen guns, acquired from a neighborhood burglar, is absurd. (The paper trail may suggest that, because the people making straw purchases also file false reports claiming the guns stolen.) Like most criminals, I created an extraordinary demand for the gun sector.

I’m where I belong. But without a gun I would not have killed. Like most misguided, impulsive youth in America, I was emotionally and socially retarded, with a killing machine on my waist. The gun sector and I do not share the same culpability. Hardly. It’s unethical, however, for stakeholders of Sturm, Ruger and Smith & Wesson to contest oversight that would prevent arming individuals like me. Hiding behind manipulative interpretations of the Second Amendment and arguments crafted by the gun lobby, which suggest that the panacea is to enrich our moral fiber, is no help. God knows I’d support moral reform -- but fixing moral decay is a tall order. Meanwhile, our free-market gun culture is out of control. Let’s fix that. Now.

Congress needs to take up gun control again when members return to Washington in September. This debate isn’t going away. “The world is watching the United States Senate, and we will be held accountable,” Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal, one of the senators at the helm of gun-control efforts, said after the bill stalled this spring. Perhaps it’s too utilitarian or oversimplified, but as a nation we’re left with the following question: Is the benefit of experiencing that surge of power, which some individuals get from sport shooting, worth the cost of unhealthy individuals, like me, experiencing a similar surge of power while they swiftly and cowardly shoot people?

For our own sake, for the sake of thousands of victims’ families affected, and thousands more whose lives will be affected, the answer seems clear.

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John J. Lennon

John Lennon is an inmate at the Attica Correctional Facility in Attica, New York.

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