OAKLAND — Seventeen-year-old Dominique Nubie stood on a West Oakland street corner talking about what matters in his life.
"Guns "... everybody here has guns," he said, motioning around.
Instead of the usual high school concerns about finishing homework or making the basketball team, Dominique worries most about survival in a neighborhood where many of his peers own guns.
Oakland is teeming with guns. They're easy to buy, easy to steal and seen by some young men as a necessary possession in certain Oakland neighborhoods where to be unarmed means to be vulnerable.
"If I got a gun, I feel like I can't be touched, like I'm the man," said one 18-year-old who said he never shot a gun, but has held one.
According to Oakland Police Department statistics, about 90 percent of last year's 127 homicides were caused by gunfire. The department confiscated 1,241 guns connected to crimes last year, but the number confiscated "is a small fraction" of the number of guns out there, said Sgt. Kevin Kaney of the department's weapons unit. He would not provide an estimate of the total number of guns in Oakland, but said there are "tens of thousands."
Youths who have been touched by gun violence and people working to stem the violence confirm that guns are abundant.
"It's very easy to get a gun. Even my little brother could get one if he wanted, and he's only 9 years old," said Olondis Walker, an East Oakland teenager who recently graduated from high school. He was a promising school tennis champion until a bullet gave him a limp. Now he's an ambassador for Silence the Violence, a program of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland.
"You get them from the streets, people sell them, a lot of people," said Walker, 18.
Homicide is the leading cause of death for youths ages 15 to 24 in Alameda County, according to a 2006 report from the Alameda County Health Department. More than 80 percent of homicides are from gun violence, the report said. Moreover, availability of firearms is the fourth most significant "risk factor" that causes violence in a community, according to the Alameda County Sheriff's Department's "Blueprint for Violence Prevention."
No gun control
It used to be illegal for civilians to purchase or own assault weapons. That was before the nation's main assault gun control legislation lapsed in 2004 — and was not renewed.
The Federal Assault Weapons Ban outlawed the sale or possession of 19 types of assault weapons — defined as semiautomatic firearms with specific characteristics allowing rapid-fire shooting, which includes most handguns. The 10-year ban was put in place by the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. But when it expired, the Bush administration, which had once said it would bring it to Congress for renewal, did nothing. Legislation to continue the ban introduced in Congress did not muster enough votes to get passed.
While California enacted its own handgun prohibitions, which continue to be in effect today, the number of guns brought into California from bordering states overwhelm the state's efforts to restrict them, experts say.
The relaxation of federal gun controls and lax gun controls in neighboring states have allowed for a plentiful supply of firearms to be available on the streets of Oakland and many of America's cities.
Easy access to guns contributes to growing homicide rates, experts say.
"Homicide rates are determined, in part, by how easy it is for criminals to get guns," said Daniel Webster, director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
A majority of guns used in California crimes can be traced to purchase in Nevada, Arizona, Texas and Florida, according to a 2007 study by the Violence Prevention Research Program at the UC Davis.
And the Oakland Police Department said guns it has confiscated have been traced to Nevada, Arizona, Montana and cities throughout California.
"When I get a confiscated gun, I run it through the registry (of California Department of Justice registered guns)," said the department's Kaney. "Maybe 5 (percent) or 10 percent of the guns are registered to people who are connected with the crime."
The rest are either registered out of state or not registered at all. Many are stolen and resold in Oakland, officials said.
Oakland "is a magnet for stolen guns," said Oakland police Detective Jim Rullamas, who investigated 32 of last year's 127 homicides.
Getting the guns
The California Department of Justice requires gun purchases in California to be registered with the state and listed in its Automated Firearms System database. But California neighbors Nevada and Arizona, as well as Texas and Florida, have few restrictions on gun ownership and do not regulate gun shows where guns are often purchased.
Federal law allows most people to buy and own guns, forbidding those with prior criminal records; fugitives; those in domestic disputes involving restraining orders; minors; noncitizens; and, as of Jan. 8, people diagnosed as mentally ill.
Licensed gun retailers must run background checks on any gun buyer, checking their names against the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which lists people with the above restrictions. But federal law does not require gun sellers be licensed to sell guns legally. It allows for "private party" sales by people not in the business of selling guns, but who exchange, sell or buy guns for "personal collections."
Experts say this loophole allows individuals, including gang members, to collect caches of guns.
Dr. Garen Wintemute, director of the UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program, found in observing 28 gun shows in five states that one-third to one-half of the sales at gun shows were by unlicensed dealers who did not have to run criminal background checks on the buyers.
Estimates by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and U.S. Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., Congress' main gun control advocate, confirm that about one-third of the dealers at gun shows are unlicensed sellers.
McCarthy, whose husband was shot dead while commuting on a New York metropolitan area rail system, had tried to pass legislation to close this "loophole" about unlicensed gun sellers. But her legislation did not pass out of committee last year and never went to a full vote.
Coincidentally or not, homicide rates are rising in many cities across the country. Newark, N.J., Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Louis, Oakland, San Francisco and other cities are grappling with violent crime rates that are climbing year to year.
Fewer guns, fewer deaths
Easy access to guns has dire consequences.
"There would be fewer fatalities if guns weren't so easy to get," said Deane Calhoun, founder and director of Youth ALIVE!, an Oakland organization dedicated to preventing youth violence.
"Kids used to talk about using a knife to go after someone," she said. "And to use a knife you have to look at someone directly and be near to them. With an assault gun, you can just spray — drive by and spray bullets. You don't have to look at the person."
The distance that shooting a gun allows takes away a deterrent: Seeing that your victim is a human being, Calhoun said.
The American Academy of Pediatrics says that when guns are stored in a home there is a threefold increase in the risk of homicide by someone in that home, and a fivefold increase in the risk of suicide.
Yet in some households, especially those controlled by gang members and turf-rulers, lots of guns are stored. And community knowledge of that creates paranoia over vast neighborhoods, said attorney Darryl Stallworth, a former deputy district attorney for Alameda County who now represents defendants in violent crimes here.
"There are communities of guns," Stallworth said. "Everyone in particular parts of the city knows that (for instance) Tyrol's got a gun and Ray's got a gun and in that area they all know where the guns are."
Sometimes, guns are stored in backyards or garages. But in a given neighborhood, "the tight group knows where the guns are," Stallworth said. "They are stolen, oftentimes."
Stallworth, a partner with the firm Taylor, Goins and Stallworth, switched to defending crime suspects, he said, partly to try to convince them to see another way of living.
"These folks carry guns because they think they're going to die if they don't," Stallworth said. "They want people to know they are packing. That gives them a certain amount of respect. But that's an illusion because if someone knows you are packing they're just going to shoot you."
It becomes a vicious cycle.
"The paranoia that exists once you're in that environment is extreme," Stallworth said.
'Every day I hear gun shots'
Fourteen-year-old C.J. described that paranoia, and sometimes the lack of it, in an interview. The West Oakland youth has come to live with the sound of gunshots.
"Every day, I hear gun shots — well, not every day, but most days of the week," C.J. said. "When we play, we hear gunshots. If they get closer and closer, then we run inside."
One night when he and his brother were walking home from a party at a cousin's house on Eighth Street, "the guns started going off and we ran," he said. "Everybody was screaming and running. I was just running different ways trying not to get hurt. I jumped into someone's back yard and waited."
When the gunfire stopped, he went looking for his brother and found him waiting inside someone's house.
Still, C.J. said he does not expect to get shot. He said it is usually people arguing who shoot at each other, and he avoids arguments.
C.J. said this with conviction, having accepted that gunfire is a part of daily life and figured out a way to avoid it. He lost his father to gunfire in Oakland a decade ago and seems to have thought carefully about how to avoid that fate.
"They keep going back and forth killing each other," he said. "It's not scary to me because I'm not in those arguments."
Reach Barbara Grady at 510-208-6427 or email@example.com.