Marlette, Michigan population: 1,879.
Brandon (not his real name) lived about a mile away, on a dirt road off Tylers. Brandon, who was 12, would sometimes pick up Tyler on his go-kart, and they would roam the neighbourhood. They had been friends since kindergarten, but werent inseparable. Once, Lora told Tyler he could no longer play with Brandon after Brandon abandoned him in town and went off with another friend.
Brandon was living with his father Jerry, who owned a trucking company. Jerry often took his son hunting and occasionally trucking, too. If Tyler was over, Jerry would take them both. Jerrys truck runs, ferrying milk and topsoil around the midwest, usually took him away for 11 hours at a time. Hed give the boys some money to help him out. Sometimes Jerry would have them sit up front; at other times, theyd be in the back playing video games. Tyler loved it.
On Thursday 21 November, Jerry had taken the boys hunting. Tyler had slept over on Friday night, and on Saturday afternoon the boys were scheduled to accompany Jerry in the truck down to Springfield, Ohio, 260 miles south and back. Lora dropped Tylers bike off at the house around 2pm, but the boys never used it because it was too cold: 8C, with winds of over 25 miles an hour.
Shortly before Jerry was about to leave, the boys said they wanted to stay home. He left them to it. He made this trip as often as three times a week, and Brandon took care of himself fine. Lora didnt know that by the time she dropped the bike off, Jerry was already gone. Tyler knew he wasnt allowed there unless there was supervision, she says. But he didnt call, and nor did Jerry. Lora went out with Thomas to celebrate a girlfriends birthday 90 minutes away in Union Lake. Jerry checked in with the boys a few times. The last time Brandon called Jerry was around 6.30pm, to ask if he could order pizza.
Almost two hours later, Brandon walked out of the house with his hands up, wearing red shorts with no shirt or socks, the police telling him to keep his hands where they could see them. He had just called 911 and told them he had shot Tyler.
Do you have any weapons? the policeman yelled.
No, Brandon said. Its on the kitchen floor.
A policeman walked Brandon to his car as he pleaded: It was an accident. I didnt know the gun was loaded.
An officer went inside, where he found a lever-action rifle on the kitchen floor and Tyler on the dining-room floor, in a Mountain Dew T-shirt and sweatpants, with a large pool of blood surrounding his head. There was a huge wound on the left side of his head. The policeman found no pulse, called dispatch, and told them Tyler was dead. As he left, he saw a shotgun lying on the living room couch and four holes in the dining-room window.
Nobody but Brandon will ever know for sure what happened that night, Sheriff Biniecki says. Brandon claims they were playing Xbox when he got a rifle out of Jerrys closet to show Tyler. He asked Tyler to hold it while he went to get his milkshake from the bedroom. He came back and took the rifle from Tyler, who passed it to him butt first, the muzzle pointing in Tylers direction. Brandon was resting it against the wall when the gun got caught on his pocket and went off.
Brandon sat in the car while police combed the house. Hed been crying and was visibly shaken. When they searched him, they found two 12-gauge Remington buckshot shells and a mobile phone. There was blood on his hands and on the phone. When asked how hed come by the shells, Brandon said hed found them earlier that day and stuck them in his pocket for safekeeping.
Inside the property, the police found a veritable arsenal. In Brandons room was a Remington 1100 shotgun, loaded and perched against the dresser with one round in the chamber and four in reserve. There were two more single-shot shotguns near the closet. In the top dresser drawer, there was some marijuana in tin foil and two rolled joints. When asked later how many guns he had in the house, Jerry couldnt remember. First he said seven or eight, then between five and 10.
Brandon didnt know Tylers address, but he could describe his house. The police went there to find only his sisters at home, who told them to call their grandmother. Janet came shortly after midnight and was told the news. She called Lora. There was no reply: shed left her phone in the car to charge. When she came out, she saw several missed calls and dialled Janet.
Are you on your way home? her mother asked.
No why? Lora replied.
I think you need to come home.
She wouldnt explain why, but that didnt unduly concern Lora. She assumed her daughters had thrown a party and got caught.
Night falls heavy in Sanilac County, cloaking the land in uncluttered darkness. On dirt roads with no street lamps for miles, the flashing lights of stationary police vehicles announce themselves with the force of a lighthouse. On the way to her mothers house, Lora saw the lights on Brandons road and drove towards them.
She called her mother. Mom, do you have Tyler?
I think youd better just come here, Janet said.
And then she put the police officer on the phone, Lora recalls.
Dont go there. Just come here, she told her, and Lora obliged.
Theres been an accident, the policewoman said when she got to the house.
OK, Lora said.
Your sons in Lapeer county hospital.
OK, Lora said. Why didnt you tell me, because I just came through Lapeer?
No, Lora, the policewoman said. Hes been shot and killed.
While Lora was halfway home, Jerry was at the sheriffs office in Sandusky. It was 2am. He had been called and asked to pick Brandon up. The police asked him whether there were any custody issues between him and Brandons mother, Connie, and whether he often left his son alone. Asked if any of his weapons were loaded, he said they might have been. Finally, they asked if Brandon had taken hunter safety classes. Jerry said he was doing the apprenticeship programme, in which a child aged 10 or more can hunt for two years without a safety certificate if with an adult. Beyond that, he had given basic instructions. I told him to hold the gun with the barrel pointing in the air. Never to point the gun at anyone, and never put any shells in the gun unless you are outside.
How the gun got into Brandons bedroom was a mystery to Jerry. He thought it had originally been in the living room and didnt remember moving it. All the guns were his, apart from the 20-gauge, which hed bought Brandon. He said the .30-30 rifle that killed Tyler had been in his closet the whole time; hed put three rounds in it a year earlier and not touched it since. It was only then that Jerry was told why Brandon was there.
Had Brandon not shot Tyler, a handful of minor episodes relating to his behaviour would probably never have amounted to anything. But he did, and over the next few days police interviews provided hints that, even if this was not an expected turn of events, it was always a possibility.
In her police interview, Connie said she had always been nervous about the number of guns Jerry had in the house, and assumed they were loaded. And then there were the incidents at school: the day before hunting season began, Brandon had boasted that he had pointed a 20-gauge at a boys stomach while it was loaded without the safety on. He also joked that the boy should put antlers on his head and run around so Brandon could shoot him. The child who overheard them thought they were goofing around about the antlers; he also thought they were serious about aiming at the boys stomach.
Guns were more available in Brandon and Tylers world than for any of the days other victims. In much of rural America, guns are an everyday part of life, for recreational and practical reasons. Being a rural community, we have problems with everything from skunks to critters, Sheriff Biniecki explains. Its not uncommon for a farmer to have a firearm handy.
With so many guns around, the potential for calamity is ever present. A few weeks earlier, two local men said they were shot at by a duck hunter. Five days after Tyler was shot, a 16-year-old shot himself in the foot while hunting 20 minutes away. Although Biniecki treats each gun death as its own discrete tragedy, one nonetheless detects in his voice a weary familiarity with cases such as Tylers. The key to preventing accidents, he says, is education and parental responsibility. I think we need to use the opportunity to further educate parents that if you do have a gun, unload it and put it away. Teach your kids the safety rules. And then, over time, dont get lax with it, because children are always curious. Put those two things together and bad things can happen.
In January 2013, in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, Barack Obama started a second term that became increasingly strident in its advocacy for gun control. He sought to shift the climate of caution by issuing a presidential memorandum directing the Centers for Disease Control to research the causes and prevention of gun violence.
But the problem has been ongoing. On 14 November 2013, nine days before Tyler was shot, Obama nominated Vivek Murthy for surgeon general. Republican legislators focused on Murthys support for an assault-weapons ban and a tweet hed sent in 2012, after the mass shootings at a cinema in Aurora, Colorado. Tired of politicians playing politics w/guns, putting lives at risk b/c theyre scared of
NRA. Guns are a health care issue. #DebateHealth, he wrote. It took more than a year for him to be confirmed by the narrowest of margins, after the National Rifle Association rallied its members.
On 20 February 2014, Jerry and Brandon appeared in district court. Jerry was a three-time felon, previously convicted, among other things, of dealing drugs and operating a vehicle while impaired.
In the US, felons are not allowed to have guns, so Jerry was charged with possession, a crime carrying a maximum of five years in prison. For leaving two boys alone with loaded guns that ended in the death of one of them, he was charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a 90-day misdemeanour. He was released on $2,500 bail. Brandon was arraigned in juvenile court and charged with careless discharge of a firearm, causing death, which carries a maximum two-year sentence. On 10 April, Brandon pleaded guilty; on 5 May, Jerry pleaded no contest.
At a hearing on 1 May, Lora told me, Connie wept as her son stood in grey sweatpants and a hoodie, and the judge placed him in intense probation at her home. The next day he was sentenced. There were 29 terms to his probation. He was sent to a junior detention facility for 10 days, with a further 20 days to be enforced if he failed to comply with the other 28 restrictions (including a 7pm-to-7am curfew, participation in anger-management classes, random drug and alcohol testing, paying for Tylers cremation, and a minimum of 10 written assignments). The probation would be reviewed every 30 days, said the prosecutor, who expected it to last until Brandon was 18 or 19. Six weeks later, the judge sentenced Jerry to a year for weapons-firearms possession and 90 days for contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
Tylers family believes they both got off too lightly particularly Brandon, who they are convinced shot Tyler on purpose. To them, the story doesnt hang together. Lora doesnt buy the idea that the latch got caught on his shorts: I believe his finger was on the trigger.
Over pizza with Brittany, her mother, stepfather and grandmother, I ask what would constitute justice.
Brittany pauses. I would want eye for eye.
You mean you want Brandon executed? I ask.
She nods. Brandon needs to be gone. I dont think he should be able to live his life.
I look around the table. Does everyone agree?
They all nod.
He should have time for what he did, Lora says.
He should probably sit inside for the rest of his life, Brittany adds. He had a role in it, but he technically didnt pull the trigger.
According to the Sanilac County News, Lora has since filed suit against both Brandon and Jerry, seeking more than $25,000. I ask her if Jerry or Connie have reached out to them. She says they have had no contact since Jerrys girlfriend came over, a few days after, to return Tylers effects. Would they have liked to? It would have been nice for them to say something. Put a card in my mailbox or something.
Even at the court they could have turned around, Janet said.
Yeah, when he stood up in front of the judge and said it wasnt his fault, Lora recalls.
Well, Janet says, it wasnt his fault. Because he wasnt home.
This is not a story about gun control. It is a story made possible by the absence of gun control. Americans are no more violent than anybody else. What makes their society more deadly is the widespread availability of firearms. To defend this by way of the second amendment the right to bear arms has about the same relevance as seeking to understand the roots of modern terrorism through readings of the Quran. To base an argument on an ancient text is effectively to abdicate your responsibility to understand the present. Adopted in 1791, the second amendment states: A wellregulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. These 27 words have been elevated to the level of scripture, inscribed on a blood-soaked pedestal thwarting all debate, more than 200 years after its passing.
None of the family members I spoke to raised the second amendment. Almost all believed guns were too readily available; none believed there was anything that could be done. But when I told them of other families who had lost children that day, they seemed shocked. It was as though they had lost a loved one in a war, unaware that the same war was simultaneously claiming other lives indeed, unaware that a war was taking place. As though it were happening only to them, when in fact it was happening to America. Every day.
This is an edited extract from Another Day In The Death Of America, published next week by Guardian Faber at 16.99.
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Another Day In The Death Of America is published by Nation Books on 4 October in north America. To pre-order a copy for $16.89, go to