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BULLETS THAT FLY INTO KIDS Parents here fearful of drug thugs who can't shoot straight

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It has happened to people sitting on their stoops or standing on street corners. It has happened to people in their homes. It has even happened to people attending church services.

Stray bullets are killing and injuring increasing numbers of innocent victims in many Baltimore neighborhoods.

And, more and more, those victims are children.

Last summer, the city was shocked when two children were killed by stray bullets and several others were wounded. Many fear the same thing will happen this summer.

This year, 14 children have been wounded by gunfire, according to statistics compiled by the Johns Hopkins Children's Center. Although many are the victims of accidental shootings, at least three of them were hit by stray bullets. And that's just the kids under 15.

Just Wednesday night, another child was hit. Five-year-old David Ferguson was struck in the right leg by a shotgun pellet while standing in a sixth-floor hallway at the Lexington Terrace Apartments in West Baltimore. He was in stable condition last night at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center.

David was standing in a nearby stairwell as two men were arguing. He was hit by a stray pellet when one man fired at the other with a sawed-off shotgun and missed, police said. Both men ran away, leaving the wounded boy in the hallway.

Two weeks ago, 2-year-old Kimberly Williams was shot while sitting on the steps of her East Baltimore rowhouse. The bullet, fired by a man shooting at someone at the other end of the block, passed behind her ear, breaking her jaw and front teeth before exiting through her upper lip. Kimberly spent about a week in the hospital, but doctors say she will require more surgery.

The girl's mother, Barbara Parker, is thankful to have Kimberly back home. But scars, both physical and emotional, remain.

"Her mouth is still sore. She can't open it. . . . And her smile is not the same," she said. "Ever since she's been home, she's been awake at night. You can't leave her. Somebody has to be with her all the time."

Ms. Parker said she was especially troubled that her daughter was shot right in front of her house, in broad daylight. Before, she had worried about her older children being out on the streets away from home. "You're scared something will happen to them and you're not going to be there," she said. But now she wonders if anyplace is safe. "This is home and it shouldn't happen here."

Terrika Johnson, 5, was shot in the back on April 9 while she was standing with her mother at the corner of Greenmount Avenue and East Biddle Street. The bullet remains in her body. Her mother, Amanda Jacobs, said Terrika is reluctant to go outside and reacts with terror to the frequent sound of gunshots outside their house.

"She went outside one day and heard thunder and thought it was gunshots and started screaming," said Ms. Jacobs. She has tried unsuccessfully to obtain city housing so she can move out of what she considers a dangerous neighborhood.

The recent shootings are a bad portent for what lies ahead, especially with the bitter memory of last summer when two children, 6-year-old Tiffany Smith and 3-year-old Shanika Day, were killed about a month apart in West Baltimore.

Two others were wounded: Lakia S. Bradford, now 10, was shot in the chest and seriously wounded while walking to a church-run snowball stand in East Baltimore, and 4-year-old Quantae Johnson was hit by a stray bullet on Sept. 7 as he stood in his grandmother's East Baltimore rowhouse.

Lakia still has a bullet lodged in her chest, about an inch from her heart. She suffers from nightmares, and she and her mother, Jennifer Queen, have both been seeing a therapist to cope with the trauma.

"It troubles me a lot. Whoever did this to her, they're probably looking at me everyday. Every time I walk out of this house or walk in, they're looking at me," Ms. Queen said. "It's a feeling that makes me want to take my children and move way on out, in the county or something. But you can't run away from reality. It could be the same out there."

The spate of gunshot wounds to children has angered pediatricians at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center, where most of the young victims are treated. The doctors have become outspoken in denouncing the violence and the availability of guns.

Dr. David Nichols, the director of the pediatric care unit, said he has seen a dramatic rise during the past two years in the number of gunshot injuries to children.

"I think the society, the community, the adults in this community have to represent a higher standard to young people in the community than they are currently doing," Dr. Nichols said.

"Nobody intends to shoot at a 2-year-old, but, with all the guns and ammunition that are available, innocent victims are going to be targeted inadvertently," he said.

When a bullet hits a child, it gets more attention, but adults and teen-agers are the unintended victims of gunshots all the time, police said.

"We get innocent people standing around, catching stray bullets on a regular basis, I would say weekly," said Agent Timothy Devine of the Western District's special operations unit. His unit handles 20 to 30 non-fatal shootings each month, and "maybe four or five of those are at least reported as innocent bystanders," Agent Devine said.

It has become so common that there is even slang for the phenomenon: on the street, bystanders hit by bullets are called "mushrooms." The term is taken from the Nintendo video game, Super Mario Brothers, in which mushrooms suddenly pop up on a screen.

A 1989 study by the Crime Control Institute in Washington, D.C., indicates that bystander shootings have become a major problem in large cities in recent years. The study examined shootings in four large U.S. cities -- New York, Los Angeles, Boston and Washington -- between 1977 and 1989 and found that the rate of bystander shootings had tripled between 1985 and 1989.

Police point to two principal reasons for the increase in bystander shootings.

First, the prevalence of drug activity leads to shootings, because of botched drug deals or to scare away competition.

Secondly, shooters with multiple rounds available to them are not as concerned with accuracy and often stand a block or more from their intended victim.

"They're not really experts with the guns. They just sort of point the thing and shoot until they hit something," said Sgt. Charles Brown, head of the special operations unit in the Western District. "The streets are crowded with people on the steps and on the corner . . . they shoot down the street trying to hit something, they fire half a dozen shots, those bullets are going to go somewhere."

In a Jan. 9 shooting the unit is investigating, a gunman shot dozens of rounds at his intended victim as the man walked in front of the Mt. Nebo Holy Church, which was full of worshipers attending a Thursday night service. In addition to hitting the intended victim, the gunman also shot two women who were attending the services and a woman who happened to be driving by.

As spring yields to summer, police say, bystander shootings will probably increase.

"Once the heat comes, and it's hot in the house, there's no school to get up for in the morning," there will be more people and particularly more children out on the streets late at night, Agent Devine said. "It'll probably be in the end of this month that you'll see some more, and then through the summer months."

This leaves parents in a bind. Many say they are afraid to have their children outside of the house. But realistically, they cannot keep them in all the time.

"I don't like them going out there because it just isn't safe out there," said Diane Pittman, grandmother of Quantae Johnson. "But you can't just keep them in the house all the time. I'm scared for them."

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