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How Do You Shoot A 12-Year-Old?

"The first thing I thought is,  I would've shot 'em."

That's one of my good friends, talking to me the other day about the news that a pair of preteen gangsters last week walked up on a woman in the Detroit suburb of Harper Woods, flashed a handgun and carjacked her.

“It's sad, that's the worst part. It's just a little boy walked up to me in the neighborhood where I grew up in and tells me to give up my car to him. And I'm like, ‘Are you kidding?' and he opened up his shirt and showed me the gun,” Johnston said.

The boy said he was going to kill her if she didn't give her the keys, Johnston said.

My friend is not sharing his thoughts about this incident to be callous or tough. There's definitely more than a hint of sadness as he utters the words, slowly, almost as if in amazement at himself.

But he lives three blocks from the scene of the crime and knows it just as easily could've been him or his wife or his older daughter getting attacked. And like a lot of law-abiding men who grew up in the city's toughest neighborhoods, he packs not only a legally registered gun but an iron-clad determination to make it home to his family every day...

"I would've shot 'em...That's the first thing I thought when I saw that."

That's a dad at my son's football practice, a good man, a church pastor, a devoted father and husband, hard worker. And like my buddy who lives near Harper Woods, he too packs and is deadly serious about his willingness to protect himself.

Over the years, he says, he has had visions of any number of threats running through his head. Never once did those fears come wearing a child's face. He shakes his head as he hears himself speak. But his mind is made up.

"Yeah, I would've, too."

That's me, responding to both remarks. And while I can only guess at the sentiments of others, I know for certain how I feel as I say this: hurt, saddened, slightly ashamed. But ultimately, unable to honestly come up with any other answer.

And that scares me. I mean, I've seen a lot in this city, but I have never once thought about being in a situation where I'd have to consider harming a child -- or where I could consider it justified for anyone else to do so. I couldn't even have fathomed such a thing -- until I read the story the other day.

Suddenly, for days, all around city, everywhere I went I heard adults — preachers, professionals, suburbanites, lifelong Detroiters — recalibrating what they thought they once knew for sure. It's not a happy reformulation. It's, frankly, a sickening thought to have to process. How do you shoot a 12-year-old?

"It's sad, man," says my friend, who lived only three blocks away from me when we were kids. "And we know most of our children ain't into that kind of mess. But something's going on out here that even we never saw growing up. There are children out here who will kill you as soon as look at you. It ain't all -- or even most -- but all it takes is a few. And how do you deal with that?"

His voice rises as he weighs the questions yet again. How do you treat a child like an enemy combatant? How do you threaten violence, even in self-defense, against a little boy? How do you shoot a pistol-packing 12-year-old child so warped that he's willing to blow you away just to steal a car whose dashboard he probably can't even see over?

How do you not?

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