Youth Justice


Nineteen-year-old Jasmine Lynn arrived at Atlanta’s Spelman College, my alma mater, as a smart, dedicated student full of promise. She was a psychology major with a 3.8 grade point average who wanted to be a lawyer. Her friends knew her as “a beautiful, free spirited ball of energy [who] always had a smile on her face.” But last September, just a few weeks into her sophomore year at Spelman, Jasmine was walking with friends on the nearby campus of Clark Atlanta University when she was hit and killed by a stray bullet. The young man charged with her murder, Devonni Benton, was a 21-year-old student at ITT Technical Institute who allegedly had just gotten into a fight with several Clark Atlanta students and made the terrible decision to get the last word by firing a gun as he left. So an area that should have been a safe haven and sanctuary of learning for the thousands of students attending the historically Black institutions that make up the Atlanta University Center, including Martin Luther King Jr.’s alma mater Morehouse, became just one more urban war zone, with Jasmine caught in the crossfire. Back home in Kansas City, Missouri, a family spokesperson said Jasmine’s devastated parents never could have expected their daughter would come home from college “in a box.”

Jasmine was doing all the right things—enrolled in college, excelling in her classes, planning for her future—when she was killed. Ironically, the alleged shooter was trying to pursue his education too. But in a culture where guns are far too easily available, a simple argument changed multiple lives forever. In an editorial published in the Spelman campus newspaper after Jasmine’s death titled “Are we safe beyond the gates?” the writer answered by quoting Spelman president Beverly Daniel Tatum: “President Tatum informed students during the memorial service in Sisters Chapel that this incident could have happened anywhere. She’s right, it could—but it shouldn’t.”

The terrible truth is that children and young people aren’t safe from gun violence at school, at home, or anywhere else in America. The Children’s Defense Fund’s annual report Protect Children, Not Guns in 2009 reported that 3,184 children and teens were killed by firearms in 2006, the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That nearly equals the total number of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq since the war started and is more than five times the number of American combat fatalities in Afghanistan. Every two hours and 45 minutes a child or teen is killed by a gun. That’s almost nine children and teens each day and 61 every week. More preschoolers (63) were killed by firearms than law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty (48). And more 10- to 19-year-olds die from gunshot wounds than from any other cause except car accidents. Many of these deaths were homicides, some were suicides, and some were accidents—but in every one, a gun was the instrument that ended a life that had hardly had a chance to begin.

It happens all over America every day — but it shouldn’t. In the days and weeks after Jasmine’s death, students at Spelman, Morehouse, and other nearby colleges and universities came together for prayer vigils and walks. They began to demand change — not just increased security on their own college campuses, but a change in our culture that allows this to happen. We need to hear their cries and add our voices to theirs. Too many of us know someone like Jasmine whose life was cut short because of a gun. And those Americans who haven’t yet been personally touched by gun violence are still affected by the increased health care costs and decreased national productivity gun violence leaves behind. We need to make sure the politicians we elect to public office enact common sense legislation to protect children and all of us from the proliferating number of guns in private hands — over 270 million — in our communities and control who can obtain firearms and the conditions of their use. Every citizen, community and political leader needs to act to end the culture of violence that desensitizes us — young and old — to the value of life. Had Jasmine graduated from Spelman with honors and received her law degree, who knows what she may have become? How senseless, sad, and unnecessary that we will never have the chance to find out.