After the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, much of the discourse — and not a little of the hope for action — was animated by the horrifying revelation that in 2020, gun violence was the leading cause of death among American children and teens. The various researchers relied on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing that more than 4,300 Americans ages 1 to 19 died from gun violence that year, nearly two-thirds from homicides. The recent passage of federal gun safety legislation was an encouraging sign, but tempered by the Supreme Court overturning New York State’s century-old restriction on concealed handguns.
Republicans regularly cite Chicago when asserting that strict gun laws make no difference. Such arguments are both inaccurate and naive given the complexities of the city’s gun violence, which is inextricably linked to the prevalence of street gangs that are themselves a consequence of decades of systemic racism, economic inequality, mismanagement of public housing and public schools, and repeated betrayals of the public trust. Sociologist and urban ethnographer Sudhir Venkatesh began studying Chicago’s South Side in the late 1990s, and understands the area’s interrelated struggles as well as anyone. His latest book about the area is “The Tomorrow Game,” a vital, inspiring, and occasionally maddening story of a community trying to regulate the number of guns on its streets. He writes not only of the teenage boys who turn to guns to defend themselves, but of the illegal gun dealers who control their access, and the religious leaders, family members, and one anachronistic beat cop who cooperate to protect them.
Seventeen-year-old Frankie Paul drifted among foster homes and relatives for a year after his mother died, before finding stability with his cousin Willie’s gang in a neighborhood Venkatesh dubs Rosewood. (Reporting this story, which Venkatesh did from 2016 to 2018, required a remarkable degree of intimacy and trust, which he reciprocates by using pseudonyms and changing geographical details.) When Willie goes to prison, he puts Frankie in charge of his drug business, but the teen’s inexperience causes problems. To save his reputation and his business, Willie instructs Frankie to find an enemy, to make a statement. Frankie chooses Marshall Mariot, the classmate he has been bullying for months.
Marshall is an “ordinary” kid who has never been in trouble with the law or involved with gangs. But he is sick of being bullied and getting ridiculed. Marshall’s friends are tired of it too, but they’re ill-equipped to take on Frankie’s crew. “Marshall’s friends play video games after school, while Frankie’s crew sells bags of weed near the park. … One [group] thinks about acne, the other is stocking up on large parcels of marijuana.”
Enter the gun dealers. Jonny Isaac is an opportunistic con artist considering whether to sell Marshall and his friends a .44 Magnum. Jeremiah “Harpoon” Harrison runs a more formal outfit, employing only unassuming women he refers to as “plain Janes,” the most senior of whom is Missie Bateson. Harpoon approaches his sales to Frankie like any other business leader, weighing a delicate balance of risks, precautions, and compromises, including the fact that he will soon be a father. Missie also wonders how long she should keep selling guns, especially if she isn’t calling the shots.
And then there are the cops. In a place like Rosewood, where mistrust and (often justified) fear of the police mean nobody can call them for help, Officer Jerome is there to help anyway. Rosewood is his “backyard — where he grew up and learned to negotiate the streets.” He has no partner, because other cops “do not appreciate the fine art of human conversation,” and his closest collaborator is often Pastor Jesse, a “street elder” who works tirelessly to rescue young men caught in “that simmering space.”
Understanding communities like Rosewood is essential to identifying why so many young men and women see guns as their only answer. Which leads to my one frustration with the book: Who is it for? In his author’s note, Venkatesh writes, “this book is a story and is not a work of scientific research intended for academics or policymakers.” Stories are lovely, and this one is propulsive and well written. But will it motivate a pastor in New York or Texas to seek out endangered teens? Will it lead a gun dealer in Colorado to provide intel to a cop? An informed public might elect representatives better suited to fighting for their interests, but this story is more illustrative than informative.
Venkatesh’s expertise is missing — and missed — here. He writes that he created a bond with many of these characters by “signaling empathy not judgment” and hopes readers do not judge either, but rather “focus on the social conditions that give rise to [their] behavior.” But there is no background on social conditions here. This is a single, albeit compelling, data point. I reported on Chicago public housing for several years, and could fill in the background myself. And I know firsthand how crucial empathy is when it comes to telling the stories of underserved communities like Rosewood. But more American children are dying from gun violence than any other cause. It’s time to start judging those responsible for providing the killers with guns, whether they’re the dealers making the sale, the cops not making the arrest, or the politicians doing nothing but pointing fingers.
THE TOMORROW GAME: Rival Teenagers, Their Race for a Gun, and a Community United to Save Them
By Sudhir Venkatesh
Simon & Schuster, 304 pages, $27.99
Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer and editor.