By Robert Israel
Children Under Fire examines gun violence in America, focusing on how it is threatening our nation’s children.
Children Under Fire: An American Crisis, by John Woodrow Cox, Ecco/Harper Collins, New York, 336 pgs., $28.99.
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John Woodrow Cox, a Washington Post enterprise reporter, digs into a topic and then doggedly follows his leads. It is in an open-ended pursuit of journalistic truth that’s become increasingly rarity in today’s newsrooms. An invaluable gig like Cox’s – he’s essentially freed from filing a story on deadline every day – has become somewhat extinct in shrinking newsrooms, the victim of lost advertising revenue, bitter union contract disputes, layoffs, and furloughs.
Some years ago, when newspapers were flush with cash, Eileen McNamara, then at the Boston Globe, was given a similar role. She and another reporter were assigned to cover the abortion beat for one year. McNamara wrote a front-page story on Lorraine Florio (of Lawrence, MA), who performed illegal abortions. McNamara detailed Ms. Florio’s clandestine mission to assist women who lacked legal, financial, and safe medical alternatives to abort their unwanted pregnancies. This story haunts me to this day as the debate over a woman’s right to choose rages on in our nation’s courts.
Children Under Fire examines gun violence in America, focusing on how it is threatening our nation’s children. Cox’s book expands on his newspaper coverage, which first ran in the Post and for which he was selected as a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 2018. Like McNamara’s pioneering abortion coverage, he tackles a deeply traumatic issue that continues to fester.
In advance of reading Children Under Fire, I turned to the Philadelphia Inquirer website to gauge how a major U.S. city confronts the gun emergency.The day I checked the website I found a story about the shooting death of a West Philly teenager, Embaba Mengesteabe. The report described her as “the kind of person you noticed: outgoing and funny, with an infectious laugh and an intellectual curiosity that changed the tenor of every classroom she entered.” Embaba, aged 15, was one out of 28 children shot in Philly since January 2021, and one out of four killed by gunfire.
Statistics can be mind-boggling; thankfully, Cox doesn’t overload his book with factoids. Yet he includes two stats: during every hour of the day a child is shot; during this past decade, over 30,000 youngsters and teens have been killed by guns.
Cox calls this a public health crisis. In Massachusetts, healthcare practitioners and legislators agree. Two years ago, the Massachusetts state legislature — in response to the increase in gun violence among youth — allocated $8 million toward prevention programs across the Commonwealth. Other states have not followed suit.
Cox introduces us, in early chapters, to Tyshaun McPhatter, age 9, of Washington, D.C., and Ava Olsen, age 8, of Townville, South Carolina. Both children have experienced gun violence: Tyshaun’s father was shot and killed, and Ava’s classmate Jacob died when a shooter stormed and opened fire at her school. Across the hundreds of miles that separate them, they bond. Cox quotes snippets of the letters they exchanged as pen pals. This narrative strategy brings us close to these children, and to their quests to live normal lives. We learn about the powerful psychological aftershocks of gun violence and about how each child — and their families and communities — struggle to cope with the senseless deaths. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes legions of villagers to heal that child’s traumas.
One of Cox’s most effective chapters brings us to our nation’s capital, which, since the early ’90s until today, has earned the unholy moniker of “Murder Capital of the U.S.” We join him on a half-hour drive through his adopted city. He describes the neighborhoods where gun violence erupts on a daily basis. We pass the alabaster Halls of Congress, mired in political inertia, unable to pass measures that might alter the alarming (and escalating) death and injury toll. (A recent example of stasis: this month the U.S. House passed a pair of Democrat-backed bills that would strengthen background checks for gun purchasers. It faced strong Republican opposition, foretelling its doom when the legislation reaches Senate Republicans, according to the New York Times). At journey’s end, we take in an exhibit that glorifies guns and rifles at the National Rifle Association (N.R.A.) headquarters.
“In a single half-hour drive,” Cox observes, “I’d traversed the landscape of this country’s relationship with guns — from a community ravaged by them for decades, among the seats of power where so little had been done to stem the bloodshed they cause, to the center of a universe [at the N.R.A.] where they were so beloved, and so profitable, that a shrine had been erected in their honor.”
Cox offers a cutting perspective on why the United States must press forward to institute universal background checks on gun purchases; why states must fund the aforementioned prevention programs; why there is a pressing need to beef up financial support for research into gun violence in our communities; and why laws must be passed that prevent children from gaining access to guns. Guns and ammunition, Cox reports, are often left in harm’s reach within homes. He asks a reasonable question: Should gun owning parents, who neglect to keep their weapons safely stored in locked boxes, be held responsible when those weapons fall into a child’s hands and result in tragedies?
I encourage readers to read Cox’s book, but it troubles me that he piles on detailed evidence without providing sufficiently strong connecting narrative threads. A non-fiction writer should discover through-lines, craft his material as Joan Didion instructs through a comparison to sculpture, “It’s a matter of shaping the research into the finished thing.” By shaping his documentation and analysis, an author helps readers navigate the book’s themes as they interweave and tighten into an inevitable conclusion. Cox thinks reporting the flow of events – between children and their families, communities, and in the political arena –is enough and that readers will follow along in the same way they take in a newspaper story. But a book calls for a more complicated architecture, a more nuanced dramatic construction.
That limitation is a shame, because Children Under Fire has the potential to sway lawmakers to take action on the gun ownership issue and to also implement safeguards that would help stem gun violence. (The volume could play the same pivotal role as Michael Harrington’s 1962 book The Other America, which embarrassed LBJ into starting a war on poverty.) One group, Wear Orange — not referenced in Cox’s book — strives to make that kind of political action happen by urging supporters to wear bright orange tee-shirts at public rallies, visual signs of the movement’s mission to mandate violence prevention programs in all 50 states. Orange is the color that Hadiya Pendleton’s friends wore in her honor after the 15 year old was shot and killed in Chicago in 2013 (she was the same age as the late Embaba Mengesteabe of West Philly). Let’s hope that Cox’s volume will play as conspicuous role in helping to quell a growing “American crisis.”
Robert Israel, an Arts Fuse contributor since 2013, can be reached at email@example.com.