In any young gunman's brain lies mystery

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The day after a shooting dominates the local headlines, I try to put myself in the shoes of the young man arrested for wounding someone he had a beef with.

Assuming the shooter didn't open fire with the intention of killing a dozen strangers or so, his synapses aren't so random and the voices in his head aren't so demonic that it is impossible to relate to him.

This isn't the sort of thought experiment to engage in every time there's a shooting in Pittsburgh, otherwise I'd spend a disproportionate amount of time trying to be other people. This week, I wondered what it would be like to walk in 16-year-old Anjohnito Willet's shoes.

Anjohnito is the primary suspect in the Wednesday shooting of three Brashear High School students and the attempted shooting of a fourth, allegedly in retaliation for a beating he suffered after a drug deal that went south last month. Anjohnito was arrested hours after the shooting and taken to Allegheny County Jail with his bail set at $500,000. Unless he is exonerated at trial, his life is effectively over.

Obviously, Anjohnito's guilt or innocence will be determined in court. That doesn't stop ordinary people from wondering what would make a young man who isn't old enough to drink shoot three people and risk life in prison, even if it is found to be a false accusation in Anjohnito's case.

There are enough bodies of young black men laid out in morgues across this state and country to be able to generalize about these kind of shootings, even if the particulars of each incident are different.

The presence of Anjohnito's 37-year-old father has been noted in news stories, so the young suspect doesn't necessarily fit the stereotype of the black teenager raised by a single mother. His father is on the scene, but we don't know what type of influence he had.

When Anjohnito was arrested, he was in the company of several relatives. He comes from what appears to be a close-knit family, though we don't know what level of dysfunction -- if any -- there is in that family. Perhaps they are as wholesome as any family can be. Still, it won't be the family that will stand trial for shooting three people -- it will be Anjohnito Willet.

His particular case aside, what is someone who hasn't even lived two decades thinking when he aims a gun at other young men and squeezes the trigger? Has he consciously decided that his victims have lived long enough, and that they have so little of value to contribute to humanity that they won't be missed?

Does he believe that there will be zero consequences and that his targets will raise themselves from the gurney at the hospital or morgue, wipe away the blood and powder burns and go home resurrected, but not resentful?

What goes through the mind of a young shooter of other young men, especially when they can't shoot back? Does the urge to shoot come to him in a swirl of spontaneous rage, hormones and mantras about being respected, or is there some subtle calculation that makes it worth the risk of living in a prison cell without a spouse, a fulfilling job, a creative outlet or a family for the next five or six decades?

Is the compulsion to shoot other young men generated by the absence of impulse control conspiring with a tragic lack of imagination and a subpar education? If a shooter doesn't have the ability to imagine himself doing something useful with his life, why would he assume anyone else has a future worth living to fulfill? What makes the victims so special that they have something to live for when the shooter doesn't?

I always wonder if a shooter is capable of engaging in something as radical, yet routinely humane, as a simple act of empathy. Did his parents -- even if all he had to lean on was an overwhelmed single parent who worked two jobs to support him or none at all -- love him enough to express disgust that he'd engage in an act of such moral and criminal cowardice? There's something to be said for thinking about one's family, avoiding the embarrassment attached to becoming a would-be killer before graduating high school.

If someone who picks up a gun had been taught to love himself from an early age and to value the lives of others, would he be capable of squeezing the trigger and shooting another human being because of some nonsensical beef?

Ultimately, only the shooter knows whether others failed him or he failed himself, or both. He has to stand in his own shoes and answer for it in any case.

Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNormanPG.


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