Among Thousands Of Gun Deaths, Only One Charles Foster Jr. Charles Foster Jr., 24, died on New Year's Day in Columbus, Ga., just one of tens of thousands of Americans who will be killed by a firearm this year. While mass shootings like the one in Newtown, Conn., attract a frenzy of media coverage, most gun homicides, like Foster's, garner little news attention.
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Among Thousands Of Gun Deaths, Only One Charles Foster Jr.

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Among Thousands Of Gun Deaths, Only One Charles Foster Jr.

Among Thousands Of Gun Deaths, Only One Charles Foster Jr.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

All this week on the program, we're going to be talking about guns. Last December's mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut revived a vigorous debate about gun laws and what can be done to reduce gun violence in this country.

SIEGEL: This week, we'll have stories about how doctors are responding to the violence. Their primary concern is suicide. And we'll also examine gun culture in Switzerland, where gun ownership is high and violence by firearms has remained relatively low.

BLOCK: We'll hear a discussion among gun owners and gun opponents trying to bridge that chasm in our national conversation, and we'll interview Vice President Joe Biden, who has spearheaded the White House effort on reducing gun violence. Today, though, we're going to focus on just one gun death: a young man killed as the year began. He was among the fatalities in this grim statistic that President Obama cited in his State of the Union address last month as he urged Congress to act on new gun laws.


DR. MATTHEW MILLER: It's a low ball by quite a bit. He's probably off by, you know, three to 4,000 deaths.

BLOCK: That's Matthew Miller, associate professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, who has studied gun violence for 15 years. And before we narrow in on one gun death, we asked him to sketch out the big picture: Just who dies by gun in America?

MILLER: There are over 31,000 gun deaths per year in the United States. That's over 2,500 per month.

BLOCK: And when you break that down and look at homicides, suicides, accidents, how does that break down?

MILLER: There were about 19,000 firearm suicides. In 2010, 11,000 firearm homicides and 600 firearm accidents.

BLOCK: Do you find that people are surprised when they learn that two-thirds of all gun deaths are suicide, not homicide?

MILLER: I find that people are almost always really surprised. I was surprised when I first started doing research into this because the source that I have for most of my information was the popular press, which covers homicide to a much greater extent than it does suicide.

BLOCK: What kind of guns are we talking about? When you look at gun deaths, what guns are being used?

MILLER: Well, it depends on whether you're talking about homicides or suicides. For homicides, the vast majority of guns are handguns as opposed to long guns. When it comes to suicide, about half of all suicides involve long guns, not handguns.

BLOCK: When you take all these numbers into account and you try to think who is the most likely victim of a gun homicide in America, what do you come up with? Who is that person?

MILLER: A young black man, 15 to 24 years of age, living in an urban area, probably in the South, living in an area where there's concentrated poverty and high crime rates.

BLOCK: Matthew Miller with the Harvard School of Public Health. He's also deputy director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. Now, those numbers can be overwhelming, impossible to take in, but what if you focused up close on just one life lost? We're going to spend the rest of this half hour thinking about one of this year's gun deaths, one that fits the description of the most likely homicide victim, as Matthew Miller described, a young African-American male in the South. In this case, someone who moved to the city from the country to seek a better life.

And our story begins down a red dirt road in Morris, Georgia, close by the Alabama line. I'm standing next to the Morris Missionary Baptist Church, a simple white country church set back in the pines. And I'm standing in the cemetery of that church, at the most recent gravesite. It's the grave of Charles Foster Jr., who was one of the first deaths of this New Year. He was killed early in the morning on New Year's Day, shot and killed at age 24.

DR. TOM DOLAN: He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

BLOCK: We're going to hear the grim details of how Charles Foster died in a bit. But first, let's find out how he lived. Who was Charles Foster Jr.? What was he like? A portrait now in the words of those who knew him best.

VANESSA JACKSON: My name is Vanessa Jackson, and I've known Charles about almost six years now. He was kind of heavyset. He wore glasses, and he had a pretty smile. He had smiling eyes.

TAMBRA GOOCH: My name is Tambra Gooch. Charles is my first cousin. Stig Diggy Diggy(ph), he loved that dance. See, that was his favorite childhood dance.

LATORIA FOSTER: My name is Latoria Foster, and I am Charles Foster older sister. When he walked in a room, you knew he was going to do something funny to make everybody laugh.

BLOCK: Charles Foster Jr. grew up in the Georgia countryside. He moved to the city - Columbus, Georgia, population about 190,000 - for school. He was the first in his family to go to college, and he was just months away from graduating from Columbus State University with a major in political science when he was killed. His family was handed his posthumous degree at his funeral.

DOLAN: I'm Dr. Tom Dolan. I'm the chair of the department of political science and public administration here at Columbus State. Charles had been one of my students. Soft-spoken, serious, he had to struggle. And yet, instead of giving up the way a lot of students would, he kept plugging away at it, and he got a number of A's from me.

FOSTER: I'm very proud of my brother because of the fact that he was determined to make something out of his life.

DERRICK FOSTER: My name is Derrick Foster, and I'm Charles Foster first cousin. We was both working at Smokey Bones Bar & Grill.

DOLAN: I often remember seeing him come to my last class last semester looking like he come fresh out of the kitchen. That's what he'd done. Flour on his clothes.

JACKSON: He was very religious, you know? His god meant everything to him.

FOSTER: He always stayed out of trouble, talking about, you know, I can't get in trouble. Tried to avoid trouble with the law, you know? He had his mind focused on that. I know he did.

GOOCH: He is so close to me, you know? To me, he was like my backbone. My backbone is gone. It's like - I'm sorry. It's like I'm stuck in this bad dream and I can't wake up.

JESSIE FOSTER: And, you know, he didn't bother nobody. He didn't bother nobody. He was just a loving person. I miss my boy. Miss him so much.

BLOCK: Sitting under a pecan tree, that's Charles Foster's mother, Jessie. She thumbs through childhood photographs of her only son and thinks about the message she takes from his death.

FOSTER: Stop the violence. Gun violence is really too many people getting hurt with guns.


BLOCK: Charles Foster Jr. was shot in the very first hours of 2013 here at the Majestic Club. As I look at it in the rain, it's purple-painted brick, no windows. A sports bar, night club on Cusseta Road in Columbus, Georgia. It's a gritty strip of liquor stores, laundromats and car washes, has a reputation for violence. In fact, soldiers from Fort Benning right down the road are prohibited from coming here.

By all accounts, Charles Foster didn't go to nightclubs. But his girlfriend, LaQuoia Arnold, did go a lot. And on New Year's Eve, it was her idea to celebrate at Club Majestic. Charles wanted to go to church.

LAQUOIA ARNOLD: Finally got him to go with me. I had to beg him. He always said people die in clubs.

BLOCK: That night, the club was full. There was a DJ. The party was promoted as Pandemonium Kickoff. Charles was there with a small group, among them his girlfriend, LaQuoia, and his cousin, Derrick Foster.

FOSTER: Talking, laughing, whatever.

ARNOLD: We both was there, so we had fun.

FOSTER: There was no altercation there. So it was pretty much a surprise when they started.

ARNOLD: It was like, (unintelligible) I looked at the time that how I remember. I said, let's get ready to go. You heard, pow. I looked at him, he looked at me. We ran. When we started running, pow-pow, pow. I hit the floor. I stopped moving. I said, if I keep on moving, I might just get hit.

FOSTER: I just saw everybody else jump down, so I responded to what I saw, you know? When they jumped down, that's when I jumped down. While I'm going, crawling to the door to escape, the shots, like it got closer. I even saw a couple of bullets go by.

BLOCK: Any idea how many shots you heard?

FOSTER: About 10 shots, I guess, maybe less.

ARNOLD: I heard about 10 gunshots and they're close.

BLOCK: LaQuoia and Derrick ran outside and realized Charles, C.J., wasn't with them. So they went back in and found him lying on the floor.

ARNOLD: I said, C.J. got shot. And I just ran to him, and I just couldn't quit crying. I just couldn't quit crying. And I looked at him, and he had got shot right here.

BLOCK: Above his heart?


FOSTER: I went back in looking for your body, and he was the first person that I accidentally looked at because he was like in the worst condition. And, you know, I saw him foaming at the mouth and everything, like bad condition. So - and I saw another dude, you know, he was shot in the leg. I saw some female - I guess she was shot in her thighs or something like that. You know, I just saw blood on her.

ARNOLD: I said, baby, I can't do this without you, baby. Baby, you can't leave me. I ain't going to be able to do this without you.

FOSTER: Well, I said a couple of words like, man, it's going to be all right, and you can make it, whatever. But, you know, I just held his hand and just said that to him.

ARNOLD: And I just prayed. I instantly get on my knees and I started praying.

FOSTER: The first person I called was my mom. I said he was shot. Junior was shot. You know, that's all I could say.

BLOCK: Charles Foster's sister, Latoria, found out about the shooting when she got a knock on her door in the middle of the night.

FOSTER: I ran every red light to get up there to the hospital to see about my brother. Then the doctor came in, he like, we did all we can do for Mr. Foster, and he's gone.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: ...shootings at the same party left one man dead and six others injured. Twenty-four-year-old Charles Foster succumbed to a gunshot wound to the chest. It happened at a...

LIEUTENANT JOHN MCMICHAEL: John McMichael, lieutenant with the Columbus Police Department, Columbus, Georgia. Call came out about 2:17 in the morning on January 1st of this year. Upon arrival, realized we had one individual, Charles Foster, that was shot dead inside a club.

BLOCK: In the next days and weeks, police would arrest two young men and charge them with murder and aggravated assault. It's not yet clear what gun or guns were used.

LARAE MOORE: My name is LaRae Moore, and I'm a senior assistant district attorney.

BLOCK: She's prosecuting the Charles Foster murder. She first heard about the shooting when she turned on the television on New Year's Day.

MOORE: And, you know, as a prosecutor, I think, OK, the count is starting all over again. On January 1st, to hear that's there's been another murder, then you think, no, my goodness. We're not getting off to a good start.

BLOCK: In a corner of LaRae Moore's office, I notice a paper bag with a biohazard sticker on it. She tells me it holds clothes that were worn by another murder victim when he was shot a few years back. Sneakers, jean shorts, a short sleeved shirt, a pair of red plaid boxers.

MOORE: Just about every homicide that I have handled, with the exception of child deaths, involve a gun. I can't think of one that I've handled that did not involve a gun.

BLOCK: If someone were to come to you and say you are on the receiving end of gun violence, you are handling these cases, what can we do? What would turn this around? What would stop the gun violence that you're seeing?

MOORE: I don't know what will stop the gun violence, because most of the cases that I see, you know, the perpetrators are not using guns that they lawfully bought and lawfully own. You know, it's a gun that's been stolen. For example, if there's a burglary, and in the course of that burglary, that homeowner's firearms are stolen, you know, nine times out of 10, that stolen firearm is going to be the same weapon that has either shot somebody or killed someone. I mean, we see it all the time.

BLOCK: So the conversation about expanding background checks, that, to you, I guess, wouldn't fix that problem.

MOORE: From what I see, if they want to get them, they're going to get them. They're stolen. They're traded for drugs. And they don't go to gun shows and buy them.

BUDDY BRYAN: I have a real nice morgue, but it's not down here. It's out...

BLOCK: I'm down in the basement of the Columbus Public Safety Building.

BRYAN: Oh, my name is Buddy Bryan. I'm the Muscogee County coroner, Columbus, Georgia. I was elected in November and took office December 31st, one second after midnight. At 5:20 in the morning, which I didn't sleep much that night out of anticipation, I got a call from 911. There was a shooting at a night club, Majestic Lounge. Seven people were shot, one died.

BLOCK: That fatality, Bryan's first as coroner, was Charles Foster. And since then...

BRYAN: I had a suicide the next day. A young lady saw the need to take her own life with a .357 Magnum. Last Sunday, we had a homicide. Two young men went to the front door of a known drug dealer's house, put five bullets into his chest. The next afternoon, about 5:00, I got a call from the 911, had a 20-year-old shot twice.

And then last night, we had a murder suicide. We had a 30-year-old United States Army captain, shot his fiance in the back of the head. He had a .45 caliber Smith & Wesson semiautomatic. And then he put the gun to his right temple, pulled the trigger. Been busy.

BLOCK: This is all the first month of - that you have on the job.

BRYAN: That's correct. Yes, ma'am.

BLOCK: That was as of February 6th. Now, the count of gun deaths has risen to 12. For all of last year, there were 36 gun deaths in Columbus, Georgia.

Well, you've got to be hoping that these numbers turn around, that this pattern doesn't keep going for the rest of the year.

BRYAN: They'll just continue to increase. You know, I don't foresee any daylight at the end of the tunnel, to be honest with you.

BLOCK: Really?

BRYAN: No, ma'am. As long as there's guns, there's going to be shootings. As long as there's shootings, there are going to be deaths. It's an awful state that the country is in as far as I'm concerned.

BLOCK: You think it's an awful thing?

BRYAN: Absolutely. I own handguns. I carry a handgun at all times. But I do that for self-protection. I'm out at three, 4 o'clock in the morning in some of the worst neighborhoods. I carry a .22 Magnum Derringer, two shots, and I carry a semi-automatic 380 Ruger.

BLOCK: Why two?

BRYAN: Well, in case I miss with the first two shots, I got seven more to back it up. I hope I never have to use it, but I will defend myself if someone tries to kill me.

BLOCK: And to the folks that say, you know, I need an AR-15, I want a 100-round magazine...

BRYAN: Yeah, yeah. How ridiculous is that? What do you need one of those for? Are you going up to Afghanistan or, you know, you going to go to Iraq, Iran whatever? Then maybe you need one. But you don't need one here in Columbus, Georgia, or Atlanta or Chicago. Look at the number of deaths out of Chicago at this point. Unbelievable. I'm not going to do it, but I would if it was mandated. I'd give all my guns up.

BLOCK: You would?

BRYAN: Absolutely. In fact, if it would help, sure.

BLOCK: What makes you say sure? Why?

BRYAN: Well, I want to be a part of the fix, not a part of the problem.


BLOCK: Charles Foster's murder spurred a march last month in front of the Club Majestic. The mayor of Columbus, Georgia, called the club a criminal haven and pledged to keep it closed. And folks from the neighborhood demanded it be torn down.


REVEREND WILLIE PHILLIPS: My name is Reverend Willie Phillips, and I am protesting the Majestic Club where so many young people have been killed, shot, of where a place that had brought so much pain to parents.

BLOCK: I meet Reverend Phillips at his small brick home a few blocks away from the club which he's been trying to get shut down for years. He leafs through a four-inch binder filled with newspaper clippings of the countless anti-violence marches he's led, obituaries for young people shot and killed over the years and news stories about other shootings at the Club Majestic.

PHILLIPS: OK. There was a soldier that got killed in their parking lot. I think he had just came back from Iraq.

BLOCK: Reverend Phillips' long and vocal campaign against Club Majestic has made him a target of threats. He keeps his curtains drawn. And there in the corner of the living room: that's my protection, he says. It's a 20-gauge Smith & Wesson shotgun.

PHILLIPS: 12 years ago, I wouldn't think about having that in the corner like that.

BLOCK: That shotgun?

PHILLIPS: Yeah. I would sit on the porch. I'm afraid to sit on my porch now. That's how afraid I am. I can't sleep now. I look out the window, I look and look every time I hear a car. But I got to fight for these young men. Like I said, I feel like that his blood was on my hand because I didn't continue to fight to close the club. I got afraid and backed off.

BLOCK: You know, Reverend Phillips, you've got this big four-inch binder with all these pages going back 16 years of all the work you've been trying to do to stop violence in your community.


BLOCK: And all the way through this binder, we see articles about funerals of people who've been shot over and over and over. And I wonder if it gets - if you're discouraged, if you think it's just not having an impact, what you're doing.

PHILLIPS: Yeah, I do feel discouraged sometimes. Yeah. I get discouraged sometimes. Sometimes I just want to sell my house and move to the country and just be alone, you know? You get tired of seeing young people be destroyed for nothing. If it takes the last breath in my body, there would not be another young person killed in that place. But I keep pushing. No matter what they throw at me, I keep pushing. I keep going.

BLOCK: In January, Reverend Phillips added a new page to his binder. It shows the round, smiling face of Charles Foster Jr. He was one of the first gun deaths of 2013 in this country. There will be some 30,000 more before the year is over.


BLOCK: Tomorrow on our program, we continue our series on guns in America with a story from Wyoming. It has the highest suicide rate in the country and one of the highest gun ownership rates which complicate suicide prevention efforts. That story tomorrow on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. You're listening to NPR News.

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