Taking Aim

Teenagers and anti-handgun advocates are helping Jaime Barrica keep a promise to his dead son

Jaime recites the story often, if only as a paradigm to argue that Jonathan is alive in the actions of his friends.

While converts to the anti-handgun crusade, the Barrica family members are hardly unfamiliar with firearms. "We grew up in our country hunting for food," Pat relates. "Guns aren't new to me, but you don't hunt for food anymore."
The Barricas (foreground) and some of the followers in their crusade to ban handguns.
Deron Neblett
The Barricas (foreground) and some of the followers in their crusade to ban handguns.

Jaime still owns several hunting rifles and defends hunting as a sport. He taught Jonathan how to shoot, and they went on hunting trips together. But handguns, he says, "do not have another use except to maim or kill our fellow human beings."

He knows with certainty that a handgun murdered his son -- but who did it remains very much a mystery. Like most American boys, Jonathan learned to like cars and girls, and he liked to party with his friends. That included drinking, but there are no indications of any drug use or gang ties.

But by all accounts, Jonathan was a good kid in a good family. Jonathan was known for his broad smile and gregarious ways. He was a natural athlete who played basketball and baseball and was vying for the top spot on the Dobie tennis team. As for academics, the honor student wanted to pursue a degree in electrical engineering.

That may be the glowing account of Jonathan offered up by parents and buddies, but a neutral source -- sheriff's homicide detective J.W. Coleman -- applied the natural skepticism of a 15-year cop, and came to the same conclusion: He was your all-American average kid."

"I think Mr. and Mrs. Barrica probably stayed on top of his activities," Coleman says. "He wasn't a kid who roamed and did what he wanted to do. They talked to him, and he talked back. That's the strange thing about it."

Coleman stays close-mouthed about details of the investigation. He says generally that the murder seems to be the type that could have happened anywhere. He thinks he may not be dealing with a hard-core killer, that the gunman could have a conscience. "I don't think it's some 'Billy Badass,' " he says, measuring his words. "I think it's somebody that has got to be losing sleep."

Jaime can only speculate that his son's outgoing attitude may have brought him into contact with a killer. "We talked to him about being too friendly," his mother says. "But he wouldn't listen, and made friends with everybody."

It was a lesson for the teens who knew the victim and thought they knew about the explosiveness of modern violence. "Before, I knew people could be gone tomorrow," says his former classmate Okere. "But not by just answering the door like Jonathan did."

Justice for Jonathan answers its own call for action with a mix of seeming naÏveté and sense of reality. Hardened political observers would give the crusade little chance of bringing change, even if it somehow meets the 100,000-signature mark and gets widespread media notice.

Jaime Barrica ignores the odds or counters with any number of catchphrases about commitment. He recites the tale of the single termite who bores a tiny hole in a big tree, eventually felling it. "I was raised by a family that never had the words 'giving up' in its vocabulary," he says. "I was raised with positive thoughts and never gave negativity a chance."

He credits that stubbornness to his upbringing in Catholic parochial school, where strict nuns instilled in him a sense of pride and determination. He feels strongly that hard facts are on his side. Examples are the statistics on killings with handguns in 1996: Texas reported 787, and the United States had 9,390. England had 30, and the country second to the United States was Germany, with 211.

At the same time, Jaime bluntly concedes that the gun lobby has massive resources and powerful allies, especially in Texas. "The legislature will probably think we are nuts, considering what we are up against," he says. "A lot of our leaders are addicted to money. That is why they don't change laws, even if it is very obvious that they are harming a lot of young people."

A recent letter-writing party by teenage members of Justice for Jonathan showed the struggle confronting them.

One youth wrote a poignant letter to influential Congressman Tom DeLay of Sugar Land. The teen told DeLay about Jonathan's murder and implored him to do something to reverse the numbers of youths being killed by handguns.

The response? He got a form letter from DeLay's office. "I believe that gun control has never served as the answer to the problem of violent crime," the reply said. As important to the group was what it didn't say: There was no mention of sadness or condolences over Jonathan's death.

Teens at the letter-writing meeting voice their disgust. The group's adviser, Kelly Carlisle, a representative of Young Texans Against Gun Violence, suggests someone write DeLay a stronger letter. Others talk of trying to gain support from anti-gun leaders like Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston or TV personality Rosie O'Donnell.

As for support in the Texas legislature, state Representative Robert Talton from Pasadena echoes many officeholders who say current laws just need to be enforced. The law permitting concealed handguns is gun control, insists Marsha Manor, Talton's Austin aide. What about the high number of teens who get access to the guns? "It's against the law [for teens] to have possession of the guns," she insists, brushing aside the issue.

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