February 3, 2013

Guns rule street in west Lemon Hill neighborhood

Whether they are in the hands of young men entangled in gang warfare, drug dealers looking for their next hookup or homeowners intent on staving off intruders, guns are part of everyday life in west Lemon Hill.

On a starry January night in a notorious corner of south Sacramento, the firecracker pops of automatic gunfire ricochet through the streets.

A young woman peering from the curtains of her front window sees a shadowy figure running away and dials 911.

A terrified first-grader drops the garbage bag she is carrying and bolts indoors, into her mother's arms.

An apartment manager freezes at her desk, flashing back to the moment last year when a thug pressed the cold metal of a gun against her skull.

Whether they are in the hands of young men entangled in gang warfare, drug dealers looking for their next hookup or homeowners intent on staving off intruders, guns are part of everyday life in west Lemon Hill.

"You hear shots every night," said Joseph White, 55, as he walked along busy Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard on his way to his apartment.

"I believe in the right to bear arms, but there's got to be a limit. We as a people are going to have to stand up and do something about this."

White, a church deacon who is part of a loosely organized neighborhood watch group on his street, keeps a locked weapon in a zipped case at home to ward off bad guys.

"I hope I don't have to use it for protection," he said. "But if I have to, I will."

White's neighborhood covers less than a quarter of a square mile in the shadow of the looming smokestacks of the soon-to-be-shuttered Campbell's Soup plant. It is sandwiched roughly between Highway 99, Franklin Avenue, 41st Avenue and 47th Avenue. It is home to about 2,500 people, about a third of whom live in poverty.

Between January 2007 and November 2012, no other similarly sized area in Sacramento County had more reports of two categories of gun crimes: assault with a firearm and shooting into an occupied dwelling or vehicle.

The neighborhood was home to 50 of those crimes during that period, as well as five murders, 90 robberies, 60 assaults with a deadly weapon other than a gun and 13 carjackings. The number of unrecorded gun incidents, residents and police said, is surely far higher.

"Bad guys with guns are everywhere in this neighborhood," said John Torres, a property manager who has a background in law enforcement but declines to carry a gun for fear it might be used against him. "We're outnumbered."

While the national debate about gun control grew out of the horror of massacres in schools and theaters in suburban America, neighborhoods like west Lemon Hill more typically illustrate the effect of guns on society. The specter of weapons affects daily life here in ways both subtle and profound.

It can be seen in the faces of people who lower their eyes and steel their expressions when they pass a stranger on the street; in the nervous posture of a woman so terrified of being seen talking to an outsider that she will speak only from a concealed corner of her backyard; in the clipped tones of a man who keeps a sharp knife in his jeans pocket for protection and asks that his name not be published for fear of recrimination.

Charlotte Campell, 77, who moved to the area from downtown because rent is cheaper, walks with the tines of a key poking from her right hand, ready to gouge anyone who might confront her.

Micah-Giovanni Kaitapu, who walks her young kids to and from school each day in west Lemon Hill, said she assumes most people she passes are carrying guns. But she refuses to give in to thugs.

She grasped the hands of youngsters on either side of her. "Living here can be very frightening," Kaitapu said, "but I can't allow it to alter my life and the lives of my children.

"So I hold my head high and I keep to myself. And every day before I leave the house, I say a prayer."

Collateral damage

Kaitapu, like many residents of this depressed neighborhood, supports gun control in theory. "I am totally against guns," she said. "Why do most people around here have them? To do illegal acts."

But she and others are unsure whether the measures proposed by President Barack Obama in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut would have much practical effect in their neighborhood.

Universal background checks, mandatory waiting periods and ammunition restrictions might work to curb violence from guns bought legally at stores, residents said. But not in their area, where most weapons used in crimes are stolen or purchased on the black market, changing hands in private homes, alleys and streets.

Gloria Tapia is a young mother who lives in an RV park in the neighborhood. "I think they could still get guns somehow," Tapia said, cradling her infant at a bus stop on a recent day. With desire and a little bit of money, she said, "you can get just about anything" in west Lemon Hill.

Graham Barlowe, Sacramento's resident agent in charge for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, said that based on experience, he believes most gun crimes in Sacramento and across California are committed with weapons that are either stolen, illegally brought across state lines or purchased through a straw buyer.

"We have a large number of firearms on the streets in the Sacramento region," Barlowe said. "People who are not eligible to buy a gun in the store will find ways to get one."

Garen Wintemute, an emergency room doctor at UC Davis Medical Center, understands the sense of futility. His trauma unit treats victims of gun violence virtually every day. He believes, nonetheless, that certain gun measures proposed by the Obama administration would make a difference in places like west Lemon Hill.

Requiring universal background checks on gun and ammunition purchases, banning certain weapons and increasing penalties for gun trafficking, along with "smart, targeted law enforcement," would "go a long way" toward curbing crime in such neighborhoods, said Wintemute, who has been researching the causes and costs of gun violence for decades.

Routine background checks on gun and ammunition sales across the country would discourage criminals from buying weapons in states with looser restrictions and bringing them to California, which has relatively strict controls, Wintemute pointed out.

"I've gone to gun shows in Reno where a third of the vehicles in the parking lot have California plates," he said. While many of those guns are bought by responsible people, he said, some end up on the streets after they are stolen or sold to criminals in underground transactions.

Wintemute has studied the effects of stray bullets on neighborhoods, "the shootings that alter the daily patterns of life, which is a kind of collateral damage," he said.

"The way to lift that tyranny from a community is to prevent firearm violence in general," and the Obama proposals would almost certainly do that, he said.

A majority of Americans support the measures backed by Obama, according to a study published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine. But the proposals face deep-felt opposition from gun rights groups, including the influential National Rifle Association, as well as like-minded members of Congress.

Even if the measures pass, it would take time for the results to trickle down to neighborhoods saturated with weapons, Wintemute acknowledged.

"It's got to be really awful to live right now in a community where you never know when the next stray bullet might be coming," he said. "I think I understand the pessimism of these people."

Still, he said, "I believe this is a transformational moment. I have more optimism right now than I have had in 30 years of working on this issue."

Resigned to the crossfire

At the neighborhood Jiffy Mart, which passes for a grocery store in west Lemon Hill, customers plinked spare change into a jar plastered with the face of a handsome young man in a football uniform.

"What happened to him?" people asked Jins Kal, whose family runs the market, as he rang up their snacks and milk and beer on a recent day.

Anthony Navarro, whose family lives in south Sacramento, died last month at age 19. Someone opened fire on him as he walked down 39th Street south of Broadway, according to police. Donations, according to a handwritten note on the jar, would help pay for funeral expenses. His killer has yet to be identified.

A young man's violent death is a story that resonates in west Lemon Hill.

Violence does not happen in a vacuum in neighborhoods such as these. It goes hand in hand with poverty, drug abuse and gang activity. On nearly every block, vacant homes with boarded windows beckon prostitutes and drug addicts. Seventy percent of residents here are renters, many with absentee landlords, and the median annual income is $28,000, less than half of the regionwide median.

It was in this neighborhood five years ago that a young gangster shot and killed Sacramento County Sheriff's Detective Vu Nguyen during a foot chase, and little has changed.

Eddie Caraveo, a pastor at Victory Outreach Church, is active in a program called Ceasefire aimed at reducing violence in the area.

"A lot of these young men see no options," Caraveo said. "You have generational gang members out there, young men whose dads are in prison and are expected to protect their families.

"Carrying a gun, and shooting a gun, is part of the culture. It gives these young men a false sense of fame, and a distorted view of loyalty and family."

Under menacing clouds and a steady drizzle one weekday afternoon last month, clusters of youths stood idly on streets where fences were pockmarked by gang graffiti or mismatched blocks of paint covering it. Pit bulls barked and snarled from gated front yards. Mattresses and broken furniture littered the vacant lots. A woman lounged in the rain on a discarded couch, puffing on a cigarette.

"These guys, I guarantee they are waiting for somebody to come and buy or sell drugs," said Ray Duncan, a beefy Sacramento County sheriff's sergeant who rolled through the neighborhood in an unmarked car. "The rain's not going to stop them, believe me."

Duncan pointed out an abandoned home where county code enforcement staffers regularly pick up hypodermic needles, methamphetamine pipes and other garbage. Later, at an empty duplex, the sergeant and two deputies confronted five teenagers squatting in a fetid living room, smoking weed in the middle of the day.

Tough enforcement of drug and gun laws is key in the battle to reclaiming neighborhoods like west Lemon Hill, cops and activists agree. But Duncan is dubious that the area would see major improvements from the Obama administration's proposals.

"There already are so many illegal guns out here, I don't see it making a big difference," he said. "If a guy wants to shoot multiple people he's not going to say to himself, 'Oh, this gun is banned, I'm not going to use it.' "

More aggressive prosecution of people who carry illegal guns would take more weapons off the streets, Duncan said. But that is easier said than done. Police and district attorneys have been spread thin by budget cuts, he said.

Policing such neighborhoods carries additional challenges, including a reluctance by "the good people who live here" to rat out thugs who might retaliate, said Duncan. Residents with criminal records, or in the country illegally, also may be reluctant to cooperate, he said.

"Someone could have been standing right next to the person who committed the crime, but they won't tell you about it," he said. "They are afraid, and they don't want to be seen talking to law enforcement."

Residents are so resigned to random gunfire in the middle of the night that they rarely bother calling police unless someone is badly hurt, Duncan said.

"Any time we get a report of a weapon being fired, we respond," he said. "But it happens so often around here that oftentimes people don't even let us know about it."

Navigating the catwalk

On a typical afternoon at Rainbow Park in west Lemon Hill, the monkey bars and swings are empty.

Many parents won't let their children play outside in the neighborhood without supervision, even during the bright light of day.

"We don't leave this house unless we're going to school, work, church or the grocery store," said one mother of five, who like many residents fearful of drawing attention agreed to be interviewed only if her name was withheld.

"I'm afraid we would get hit by a bullet going to the park or just standing in the backyard," she said, her eyes darting back and forth as she spoke in a near whisper outside her backdoor.

Indoors, whether they are eating dinner or watching TV or doing homework, her children know to "hit the deck" when they hear sounds resembling gunshots. Stress is the family's companion, and "it's the worst feeling you can ever have," the woman said.

"At nighttime I hear people shooting," offered her daughter, a first-grader in a school uniform. "It sounds like fireworks. It's really scary."

To get to school at nearby Pacific Elementary, many students in west Lemon Hill navigate a raised concrete "catwalk" above the roaring traffic of Highway 99. The stretch, wrapped in chain-link, typically is littered with discarded clothing, paper wrappers and used condoms. From the school, it dumps onto a street where shoes dangling from the overhead wires signify a spot where drug dealers gather.

Principal Elana Soto-Chapa regularly accompanies youngsters across the catwalk, and listens to students describe "where the drug dealers hang out" and "where the drunk people hang out," she said.

While the school itself is a safe haven during the day, she said, gunplay happens at night. As proof, Soto-Chapa keeps two bullets that her students picked up on the playground. Every now and then, she said, staffers come to work in the morning to find gang graffiti marring the walls or a bullet hole in a window.

Last month, counselors helped students deal with the drive-by slaying of Navarro, whose siblings attend the school. "So many of our kids have experienced trauma and violence and loss," Soto-Chapa said. "They are desensitized to it, to some effect."

While making reference to mass shootings in Connecticut and Colorado, President Obama has said his gun proposals also target everyday violence in places like west Lemon Hill by keeping weapons out of the wrong hands, implementing safety measures in schools and increasing access to mental health services.

The proposed reforms are designed to protect "the men and women in big cities and small towns who fall victim to senseless violence each and every day," the president said in a speech last month.

Soto-Chapa is hopeful. "To me, the laws that are being proposed are conservative," she said recently as she greeted parents picking up their children. "I think they should be even tougher. Guns are too easy to get. We've got to get them off the streets."

Jose Avila, who owns a home in west Lemon Hill and whose children attend Pacific, respectfully disagrees. At least three times when potential burglars have invaded his property, he said, he has gone so far as to load one of the guns he keeps in a safe for protection and recreation.

"I've got a pit bull and a gated fence with locks, but people still break in," he said. "I have a problem with gun control. The criminal element already has guns. It just makes it harder for responsible people like me to get one."

Avila said "more police" is the only answer to reducing crime in west Lemon Hill.

With his two daughters, Avila raked trash from the catwalk last week. But the girls are not allowed to navigate the walkway alone. "I drive them to school," even though it is a few blocks away, he said.

Neighborhood resident Arlene Garcia uses the catwalk to shepherd her daughter to and from Pacific every day. She fixes her eyes downward, a hand on her daughter's shoulder, and maintains a brisk pace.

"I don't make eye contact with anyone," she said. "I want to make sure that we don't get kidnapped or mugged or raped. There are a lot of people around there with guns."

Last year, two young men grabbed Garcia as she walked through her apartment building's courtyard at night. One of them slammed her against a tree, held a gun to her head and demanded money. "I told him I didn't have any," she said.

Time stopped. She was sure she was going to die. She tried to talk "as loud as possible," to alert tenants, she said.

Windows slammed shut. No one came out. "I thought I was never going to see my kids again," she said, tears welling in her eyes.

The gunmen left after Garcia offered her cellphone; they took the phone, and with it, the last message her father had left her before he died.

Months later, she helped put the two men behind bars. But she still walks in fear in the neighborhood where she has lived for 18 years.

Garcia has never considered getting a gun for protection, even though she suspects that "at least half" of the people she passes these days have weapons on them.

"Me?" she said. "I just carry faith in God. What else can I do?"

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