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In many American cities, the national dialogue about gun violence is taking place against a backdrop of decreasing violent crime. That's true in Los Angeles where there's been a drop in murders and assaults with firearms. But, of course, L.A. is a big city and there are still large parts of it where people are shot and killed on a regular basis. And in those neighborhoods, the policy debates in Washington and statehouses seem far, far away. Here's NPR's Mandalit del Barco from South L.A.
MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Here on 53rd Street and Vermont Avenue, where I'm standing, violent members of at least six gangs run the streets. A landmark church in front of me is boarded up and tagged. There are liquor stores and abandoned lots. There was a shooting two nights ago, just two blocks down. This is an area where murders, burglaries, robberies and rapes are common. And so are guns.
RANDOLPH WRIGHT: There's too many guns out here. I can tell you right now, every hood has an AK in they hood. Regardless, whatever the gun they got, they have AK.
MALAK ROGERS: One person in the neighborhood got a big gun, somewhere in that neighborhood where you can just look through it and just really blow somebody's brains out.
BARCO: Randolph Wright is 18 years old. Malak Rogers is 17. They seriously doubt much can be done about so much weaponry in their neighborhoods.
ROGERS: A lot of people do like their guns, like to show off. And they show people like, don't bother me, I got a gun, I'll do something with it.
BARCO: Around here, there are no mass shootings on school campuses or in movie theaters. Instead, men, women and children are shot one, two, three at a time. And it happens all the time. Just three days ago, Malak was shot at in front of his home by a rival gang. Here's Malak, Randolph and 18-year-old Donna Lowe.
WRIGHT: I had lost one of my friends from a stray bullet to the chest from gang violence. So it's hard because that was my best friend. And I seen him die in front of me.
DONNA LOWE: When I was in second grade, my friend got killed because of his older brother. They came and shot up the house, and he got killed. And he was only in second grade with me. And his little sister, her hand got shot off. And his older cousin had to get a hip replacement. They were laying in the living room watching TV on the floor.
ROGERS: I mean, I was chilling with my friends, you know, was chilling on my block. Some guys came through and I got hit. Boom, my homey got hit in his neck. Boom, my other homey got hit in his arm and his stomach.
LOWE: We're so used to this. This is everyday life for us.
BARCO: These teens say the proposed federal gun laws, the background checks on buyers, limits on ammunition magazines, a ban on assault weapon sales, these ideas don't seem so relevant in the neighborhood, not when so many old guns are passed around or stolen, not when serial numbers are filed off, not when guns aren't registered or bought at a store.
MICHAEL TREJO: I can say it's very easy to get a gun out here. It's one phone call away. And that's how all these kids are getting these guns. And they don't have to be background checked or nothing.
BARCO: Fifteen-year-old Michael Trejo says he affiliates with a local gang. He's on probation now and was once shot at in an alley during a robbery. He doesn't want to give every detail, but he says he and his family are in what they call the lifestyle.
TREJO: You just go to your friend, you know what, these people are bothering me. I need a gun. And that's how easy it is.
BARCO: So this proposal President Obama says is not going to get to those people that can just make a phone call and get a gun.
BARCO: Well, what do you think could be done about it?
TREJO: I think more enforcement, more...
BARCO: You think more cops would be the answer.
TREJO: Mm-hmm, more cops.
BARCO: The young people I met with for this story say proposals to beef up security at schools are good. But what about all the areas outside of school grounds, the ganglands they have to walk through? Things are so bad that students get bussed for just two blocks to an afterschool program run by the Brotherhood Crusade. It offers afterschool tutoring, sports and other activities to keep them busy and away from the streets.
They have thoughtful discussions about the conditions they live with. But Malak Rogers, who's on probation and under house arrest, says he can only do so much to change the mentality of his hood.
ROGERS: I just tell my friends, like, you know, hey, if you got a gun, just be careful, man. Don't just go out and kill nobody. If somebody going to try to do something to you, then you handle them. Use your gun for a good reason. Say somebody's trying to kill you or somebody's trying shooting at you, then use your gun. But just using your gun just because, that's not a good reason, you know?
BARCO: You tell that to your friends?
ROGERS: I tell that to all my homies. None of my friends just go out killing nobody. None of my friends do none of that.
BARCO: So what do your friends say when you say that?
ROGERS: They'd be cool with that. They carry they gun with them, you know, if something happens, they're going to do they're thing, you know?
BARCO: They don't solve their - they wouldn't think of solving their problems...
ROGERS: I mean some of them, they'll talk it out, you know? Some people talk it out. But some people, they can't talk it out too much. Their brain get too tired. You know, people, like, get fed up and they just explode.
BARCO: Malak and the others I talked to here say they're working on changing their lives. But the gun culture of South L.A.? Well, this is still a place where you always have to watch your back. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Los Angeles.
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