The Weapon: A Day in the Life of a 9mm

The three students from Wilberforce University, near Xenia, Ohio, had a tremendous fondness for 9-millimeter pistols. They bought them as many as 25 at a time from the accommodating owner of the Hole in the Wall Gun Shop, James Dillard. As required by Ohio law, the buyers duly attested that the guns were for their personal use, which was good enough for Dillard. In fact, according to federal prosecutors, the pistols were passed to a gunrunner who resold them to street gangs. Seventy-six 9mm semiautomatics were sold to just one gang, the Double II Bloods of East Orange, N.J. Jamel Coward, who already had a .45, bought a Leinad 9mm and went out with a friend to try it out. On people. They drove down a street in what they believed to be the territory of the rival Crips, and Coward commenced firing. He wounded three bystanders before a bullet struck 19-year-old Erron Lewin in the neck. Lewin, who belonged to no gang, died on the spot.

When Cho Seung-Hui armed himself with a 9mm Glock for his rampage (he also carried a .22-caliber Walther) he was standing in a tradition of bloodshed stretching back more than a century, adding to a toll that almost certainly dwarfs that of the legendary Colt six-shooters. German officers in World War I shot deserters with their Lugers, the original 9mm semiautomatic. When four New York City cops mistakenly unleashed a fusillade of 41 shots on the unarmed Amadou Diallo in 1999, they were firing 9s. It's an icon of rap culture: "Cock my nine, and separate yo' head from yo' spine," Ice Cube memorably muttered in homage to the murdered Notorious B.I.G. Of the 188 shots fired in the Columbine High School massacre, which until Virginia Tech set the standard for depraved mass schoolroom slaughter, 55 came from Dylan Klebold's Tec-9.

It's a lethal gun, but then all guns are. A 9mm round—romantically called a "parabellum," from the Latin slogan ("If you seek peace, prepare for war") of its original German manufacturer—weighs a little more than a quarter of an ounce, with a diameter of about three eighths of an inch. Exiting the barrel at about 1,100 feet per second, almost the speed of sound, it can kill at ranges in excess of 100 yards. But essentially, it's a weapon for short-range self-defense—a "very up-close and personal kind of weapon," says Dan Shideler, editor of the Standard Catalog of Firearms. In the hands of a novice shooter, as NEWSWEEK's Raina Kelley discovered at a Connecticut gun range last week, it delivers a fearsome kick, which leads to anticipatory flinching, causing the barrel to drop and the shot to miss low. A few experts maintain that lower-caliber rounds, such as .22s (about a fifth of an inch in diameter) can be equally deadly. They make a smaller hole, but a .22 "tends to bounce around in the body," whereas a 9mm round often passes right through, says Fred Starkey, a veteran LAPD officer. But the ones who should know best—the militaries of at least 70 countries, including, since 1985, the United States—have come down in favor of the 9mm sidearm.

And increasingly so do American police forces. About 60 percent of the firearms in use by police are 9mms, many of them Glocks, whose relatively lightweight part-plastic bodies make them a good choice for someone who has to carry one around all day. The changeover began after a notorious 1986 shoot-out in Miami between three carloads of FBI agents and two heavily armed robbery suspects. Two agents (as well as the suspects) were killed, leading to a demand for more firepower for officers, who still typically carried the venerable .38-caliber Police Special. Those hold six bullets in a rotating cylinder that when empty has to be reloaded manually, one round at a time. A 9mm holds 10, 15 or even more bullets in a magazine that can be swapped out in two quick motions, although it takes considerable practice to do it smoothly. Naturally, society wants the best protection for its officers. But there are trade-offs. Before 1993, when the NYPD phased out revolvers in favor of Glocks, the officers who shot Diallo could have gotten off a maximum of 24 shots altogether before stopping to reload—and, perhaps, to rethink.

Criminals, who tend not to worry about the lives of bystanders, took to the 9mm enthusiastically. The 1980s represented "the perfect storm for the 9-millimeter," says Jorja Leap, a UCLA anthropologist and expert on gang culture—turf wars were erupting over crack at the same time that the U.S. military was adopting the 9mm, which meant a huge market in inexpensive surplus ammunition. It had glamour; cinematographers fell in love with the automatic's sleek, sinister profile, in contrast to the almost feminine bulge of the revolver. The 9mm was a major visual trope in such powerful films of the early 1990s as "Boyz n the Hood" and "New Jack City." Today it's the gun of choice for the everyday criminal and cop alike, accounting for 263,000 of the roughly 815,000 handguns manufactured in the United States in 2005, according to government figures. The U.S. International Trade Commission tracks imports of handguns, which totaled 878,000 in 2005, but those aren't broken out by type, and so not even the government knows how many 9mm guns are actually sold in this country. But it's ubiquitous on the street, from gang-ridden South L.A.—where in one area, patrolled by the LAPD's Southeast Division, it figured in 23 of 58 gun homicides last year—to the ghettos of Philadelphia, where homicide detective John Ramsey estimates that "about 60 percent of the homicides I work on involve a 9-millimeter." They have one advantage, from the cops' point of view: they eject telltale shell casings at the scene, to the benefit of investigators. That's why some criminals still prefer revolvers.

Law enforcement scored a minor victory in the firepower contest with the 1994 law restricting assault weapons. Among other provisions, it prohibited the sale to civilians of newly manufactured high-capacity magazine clips, those holding more than 10 rounds. (It didn't actually ban using them, just buying new ones.) This was meant to give police officers, who were not covered by the ban, "a tactical edge over potential assailants," according to John Shanks, a former cop now with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. But Congress evened things up by allowing the law to expire in 2004. Cho reportedly purchased several 15-round clips for his Glock.

Many ordinary citizens now have 9-millimeters for protection as well, which means, inevitably, that they get used to settle arguments between spouses or friends. Last month, according to police in Ft. Smith, Ark., a feud between next-door neighbors led to a confrontation that ended in gunfire—a bullet from a 9mm Ruger in the head. (Police believe the gun was legally owned.) Or they get picked up by children, who find the trigger much easier to pull than the one on a revolver. To the lives ruined by this weapon, you can add one more name, that of Jamel Coward, who, five years after he took target practice on a 19-year-old walking down a New Jersey street, faces a sentence of 25 to life after pleading guilty to murder.

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