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Tracing Gun Violence Through 3 Generations Of A Family

Luis Gonzalez, John Broughton's grandfather, says that as John got older, he saw his grandson consumed by the violence that surrounded him.
Lena Jackson
WLRN/Screenshot by NPR
Luis Gonzalez, John Broughton's grandfather, says that as John got older, he saw his grandson consumed by the violence that surrounded him.

Violent crime has been decreasing over the past few decades, but for some families, it still defines daily life, as they cope with shootings and their aftermath.

One of these families has experienced the devastation of gunfire across three generations.

John Broughton says he's been both in front of the gun and, once, behind it.

It's what his mother, Carmen Gonzalez, says she was trying to avoid when they moved away from Miami when John was 11. The family's roots are in Liberty City, a neighborhood that's experienced high rates of gun violence for decades.

"I've been gone for nine years," she says. "I moved back there for seven months, and was like, no I can't. I can't. I left for the evening, come back home, it's bullet holes in my walls. And my son is in the house asleep."

"Growing up, you're going to see — you're going to see stuff you don't want to see," John says. "You'll see a man beating up his wife or somebody literally getting shot right in front of you. ... What you supposed to do?"

John Broughton (left) with his grandfather Luis Gonzalez. Gonzalez says the family is "riddled with bullets."
/ Courtesy of Luis Gonzalez
Courtesy of Luis Gonzalez
John Broughton (left) with his grandfather Luis Gonzalez. Gonzalez says the family is "riddled with bullets."

John is 20 years old now. He goes back and forth between being fascinated with guns and mistrusting anybody carrying one.

When he was 2, his grandmother was killed when gunmen opened fire outside a liquor store.

John's grandfather, Luis Gonzalez, says John and his grandmother were close. He says they'd watch TV together.

"We called her Neesie," Luis says. "He didn't know how to say Neesie. He'd say Neechie, Neechie. He'd ask for Neechie and look where she would sit. She'd sit there with him on her lap with his bottle in his mouth watching TV, and now there was no Neechie."

John's mother Carmen was just 17 at the time. Luis says the experience changed her profoundly. When they went to the hospital to identify the body, "the medical people pulled the sheet back to show her face," Luis says.

"Carmen ripped the entire sheets off and threw them on the floor, said, 'Yeah, that's her,' and walked away cold," he says. "She just turned so cold and bitter from that point on."

Despite recent upticks in a handful of U.S. cities, violent crime has declined dramatically across the country over the past 25 years. But the impacts of gun violence aren't evenly distributed. Where you live, who you come across and who you're related to can all contribute to a kind of network effect.

John's mother says murders and gunshot injuries were part of the backdrop of his childhood.

"He became extremely cold, trouble in school, and he had a nonchalant 'I don't care' attitude about everything," Carmen says. "And this was from, like, 7 years old. The only thing on his brain was 'who killed my grandmother, and how can I find them because I want to kill them.' "

John has a tattoo on his neck with a phrase drawn from the Bible. It says "No weapon formed against me shall prosper." Alongside it is a drawing of an AK-47.

John says that's the weapon his uncle Rob used to take his own life on his living room couch. It's also the weapon that killed his half-brother Jarvis.

Luis says the family is "riddled with bullets." This past Sunday, he says, another relative — John's uncle Pierre — was shot and killed in Central Florida. And he says that as John was growing up, he saw his grandson consumed by the violence that surrounded him.

"As far as following things that you know you need to get done, you need to graduate school so you can earn a respectable living — none of that comes into play," Luis says. "But he knows who got shot, where they got shot — they know he knows all those things, but he doesn't know things that would make a positive impact in his life."

John doesn't deny this. With everything going on in the neighborhood, he says, how could a kid be expected to focus on school?

"You can't throw me in China and expect me not to learn Chinese," he says.

Despite all the pain gunfire has caused him over the years, John says guns have always been alluring.

"I ain't going to lie," he says. "When you pull that trigger, it's just so — I don't know. You just get a feeling. You just want to do it. I don't know. It's like a stress reliever."

When he returned to Miami as a teenager, John and his friends would drive out to lakes near the Everglades and shoot at trees or into the water. He's been infatuated with guns from the moment he fired one.

"I first fired a gun when I was, I think, 11 on the Fourth of July," he says. "It was a sawed-off shotgun."

But recently, something changed for John. He says losing his half-brother has made him more wary of guns in general.

"Now, you can't have no gun around me," he says. "Because now, I really don't trust nobody."

But he still plans to buy a gun when he turns 21. John's Facebook timeline shows some of this paradox. In one photo, he's visiting his grandmother's grave. In another, he's mourning his dead uncle. And in a third, he grins ear to ear, holding a pump action shotgun.

John's grandfather called him the second he saw the post.

John says that episode — posting a photo of himself with a gun — falls into the category of things he'll never do again.

Recently, he spent a month in jail after getting drunk and stealing a friend's cellphone. The charges were dropped, but John says the experience was a wake-up call.

"You're a product of your environment," he says. "I ain't trying to be a product of this environment no more. I don't want to be the reason something happens to somebody else."

John's in Jacksonville now, working at a warehouse where he drives a forklift. But it's hard to leave the world you grew up in. He knows spending time in Liberty City might not go well for him. But John says Miami is a habit that's hard to kick.

This story is part of a series from NPR member station WLRN called Young Survivors , about the trauma that comes from surviving shootings. Rowan Moore Gerety is a reporter with WLRN. You can follow him @rowanmg .

Copyright 2017 WLRN 91.3 FM

Corrected: April 11, 2017 at 9:00 PM PDT
In an earlier version of this story, a photograph of Luis Gonzalez was incorrectly credited to Rowan Moore Gerety. The photo was taken by Lena Jackson.
Rowan Moore Gerety