Heaven Miller died on September 1 after her father accidentally shot her while, according to the police report, “attempting to make the weapon safe”. She was two years old.
That day, she joined a long list of American children shot dead during the roughly two weeks that I spent reading Guardian journalist Gary Younge’s affecting new book, Another Day in the Death of America. They also included a two-year-old who shot himself in Bucks County, Pennsylvania; an 11-year-old New Mexico girl killed in a murder-suicide committed by her stepfather; and an eight-year-old girl shot in the head during a drive-by shooting outside her Florida home.
These deaths, while tragic, were not extraordinary. On an average day in America seven children and teens are killed by guns. Younge uses this stunning statistic as the journalistic framework for a slow-burning indictment of US gun culture: pick a random day, in this case November 23 2013, and profile each of the victims.
He finds 10 working- and lower-class kids — the youngest nine, the eldest 19 — felled by gunfire around the country “by accident and on purpose, at a sleepover, after an altercation”. Younge writes: “Like the weather that day, none of them would make big news beyond their immediate locale because, like the weather, their deaths did not intrude on the accepted order of things but conformed to it.”
He recognises that mass shootings such as the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, when a gunman shot 20 small children and six adults, “disturb America’s self-image and provoke its conscience in a way that the daily torrent of gun deaths does not”. By bringing together the stories of those who died on November 23 — though, as Younge notes, with no national database there may be more that his research did not uncover — Another Day has the effect of proving that America suffers a mass shooting every single day, even if Americans are inured to its diffuse nature.
Some of the portraits suffer from the simple fact that their subjects did not have the chance to live full lives, while others are sparse given the reluctance of family members to be interviewed. But Younge elicits compelling reactions from the many relatives he speaks to, including one mother who describes her world after her ex-boyfriend murdered her nine-year-old son, Jaiden: “It was like before then I was in a theatre watching this movie, and since then it’s been like walking into a parking lot and trying to adjust to the bright lights from being so engrossed in this movie for so long.”
Younge writes that his is not a book about race or gun control. This is true in that he avoids polemic and sticks closely to his case studies, though he barely needs to spell out their implications. Seven of 10 victims are black and two are Hispanic. The book functions as an argument for how the socio-economic realities and geography of institutional racism combined with the flood of easily available guns dictate that “there are places in almost every American city where . . . the deaths of young people by gunfire do not contradict a city’s general understanding of how the world should work but rather confirm it”.
Younge, born in Hertfordshire to Barbadian parents, spent more than a decade reporting for the Guardian in the US, writing movingly on race and gun violence, particularly during his four years in Chicago. When he started the book, Younge writes, he made a grim prediction: “I assumed that whatever day I picked there was a reasonable chance that one of the children slain would be in my home town, that he would be a young man of colour, and that he would be killed on the South or West Side. Sadly, I was right on all counts.”
It would be an even easier bet today. August was Chicago’s deadliest month in two decades, with 90 homicides. The city is on pace to hit 700 murders by year’s end, far surpassing the more than 400 of 2013, when Tyshon Anderson, a troubled black 18-year-old, happened to be the one who died on November 23.
Younge — in a book that feels both timely and utterly, hopelessly timeless — holds few illusions that there won’t be many more.
Neil Munshi is an FT reporter based in New York
Another Day in the Death of America, by Gary Younge, Guardian Faber, RRP£16.99/Nation Books, RRP$25.99, 320 pages
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