YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) — They’d rather have it and not need it then need it and not have it.
That is often the logic, police and others say, of people who are arrested in the city with guns.
Yet a large portion of those who have been arrested since last October are under 21. Often, for those people, the gun charge they receive is their first felony, a felony that stays on their record and can make it hard for them to find a good job when they get older.
As of June 9, roughly one in four people arrested in the city on a gun charge is under 21, or 25 percent. In 2021, the city has arrested 68 people on gun charges, according to court documents and police reports, and 17 of those people are under 21.
Guy Burney, the head of the Community Initiative To Reduce Violence, or CIRV, which works with people who are at risk to either commit violence or be victims of gun violence, said the number one reason young people give him for having a gun is because they think they need protection.
“They would rather have it and not need it then need it and not have it,” Burney said.
The reasons they think they need protection vary, Burney said, from living in a bad neighborhood to being around people who may be targets of violence themselves. He said the best way to combat that is to start educating young people at an early age about the wisdom of making good decisions and of not putting themselves in a position that may be a risk to themselves or others.
The numbers are even greater since Oct. 19, when the city began a round of special patrols looking for gun offenders in the middle of a month that saw 19 people shot, three fatally. Of 28 people arrested from Oct. 19 until the end of 2020, 17 of them were under 21, or almost 61 percent.
Overall in 2020, 102 people were arrested on gun charges, 25 of them under the age of 21.
That means 34 of 100 people arrested on a gun charge since Oct. 19 are under 21, or more than 34 percent.
In all of 2019, just 14 of 100 people arrested on a gun charge, or 14 percent of those arrested, were under the age of 21.
One person under 21, who goes by the initials “J.B.” and who is 20 and lives in the city, said he knows lots of young people in the city who have carried guns. It is often their environment that dictates them arming themselves, he said.
“They think they have to protect themselves because the police won’t do it,” J.B. said on a Sunday afternoon in the police department where he was attending a meeting of players in the city’s Respect Basketball League.
The meeting was being held several hours after two people were killed and three others wounded outside a nightclub on Salt Springs Road. One of those killed was just 19 and the other person was 23.
Another person under 21 at the meeting, J.S., who is 19 and also lives in the city, said protection is the number one reason why people in his age group carry guns.
“People feel they need to protect themselves,” he said. “With the shootings going on, you never know.”
In 2021, the city has seen 50 people shot as of June 11, 13 fatally, an increase from the same time in 2020 when 30 people were shot.
Overall, in 2020, 98 people were shot including 27 of 28 homicide victims, an increase from the 58 people who were shot in 2019.
Malik Mostella, who has been a city police officer for 21 years and is now the department’s Community Liaison, lamented during the same meeting where J.B. and J.S. spoke the violence that has plagued the city at times.
“Our biggest problem is our young men are killing each other,” said Mostella, a south side native who is Black. “We’re killing a whole generation of young people.”
Mostella has worked a north side beat on midnight turn for most of his career interspersed with a stint in the former Street Crimes Unit, where officers patrolled hot spots in the city and looked for wanted fugitives. He said he has responded to too many homicides where he knows the victim or the victim is someone in his family.
“In 21 years, it’s honestly gotten quite old,” Mostella said.
Mentors for young people can help, Burney said. In fact, he is doing that with a 22-year-old man who was given probation on a gun charge after he told a judge he has no hope for his future. When heard of the story, he reached out. The judge let the man out of jail early so he can begin the procedure to get counseling and his GED so he can get a job and deal with the issues in his life.
Mentoring is especially needed in neighborhoods where there are a lot of single-parent families with no family, or in some cases, no adults around, Burney said.
“That’s one of the biggest pieces we have to help young people,” Burney said. “We’re providing positive adults.”
Burney and Mostella both said it is also important to give young people things to do so they can have positive people to interact with and to fill the time with activities so they stay out of trouble. Mostella has a few other ideas besides the basketball leagues, which are going on in the city, that he is trying to put together now.
Mostella also agrees with Burney that reaching kids at a young age is important, but he thinks it has to be very young, like before junior high. Kids who are older, Mostella said, often already have their minds made up and attitudes entrenched.
One thing Burney said hinders a lot of young people in the city is they do not think much of their future, and that comes into play when it comes to carrying guns. The most common offense for most first-time gun offenders is improper handling of a firearm in a loaded vehicle or someone who has a loaded gun in a car either near them or within reach.
The charge is a fourth-degree felony, and probation is often given. Yet, someone who faces that charge, even if the person doesn’t go to jail, has a felony on his or her record. That can make it hard for the person to get a good job when an employer sees it on an application or it turns up on a background check.
Burney said people don’t think of the long-term complications of carrying a gun; then, they get arrested for a charge they might not even see any jail time for. It seems like a good deal — until they get older and can’t get a job because they have a felony on their record.
He has been to a lot of hearings for people trying to get such offenses expunged from their record so they can get a good job.