Taking Aim

The Barricas (foreground) and some of the followers in their crusade to ban handguns.
Deron Neblett

Jaime Barrica thought he left the turmoil of protest and demonstrations behind in 1979, during the turbulent finale to the Ferdinand Marcos reign in the Philippines. His family sold what they could and left their small town for the stability of faraway Texas.

By last March, the wisdom of that decision seemed obvious. Jaime, a supervisor at an area hospital, and wife Pat, a nurse, had raised three children in a tight-knit community wedged between Pasadena and Houston.

Neatly sculpted lawns in the Sagemont area accent modest homes where parents revere their children's achievements. Signs, carefully cut from plywood, proclaim their kids' involvement in extracurricular activities at Dobie High School -- "Bobby's in the Band," "Cindy is cheerleader."

"It's a Leave It to Beaver neighborhood," marvels one visitor. That was the image back on the morning of March 10. Neighbors of the Barricas remembered seeing several kids outside the home, one of them ringing the doorbell. But that was hardly unusual. Jonathan Barrica, at 17 the youngest of the family, was an honor student and tennis buff who had many friends. His parents had gone to work; he was home for the first day of spring break.

A nagging ring of the doorbell awakened Jonathan at 11:22 a.m. Moments later, his brother Roscoe, 23, was stirred from sleep by a loud noise. He ventured into the hallway and saw Jonathan lying in a pool of blood, with a bullet wound to the head. For the next 31 days, family and friends huddled at Ben Taub General Hospital, where he remained on life support until doctors declared him dead on April 12.

During the funeral, Jaime Barrica stood at Jonathan's grave and made a vow to his son: Somehow, he swore, he was going to stop this from happening to other kids; from ever happening again.

On a clammy summer evening, a smattering of teens and parents gather in a meeting room at St. Luke's Catholic Church in southeast Houston. Jaime Barrica is convening the latest session of the group dedicated to his son, Justice for Jonathan.

The previous week, Barrica's forces gathered at Dobie High School in an after-class rally on Flag Day to kick off an ambitious project. They intend to march to Austin in September to present Governor George W. Bush with 100,000 signatures calling for a ban on handguns in Texas.

Barrica asks the attendees one by one about their weekly progress. Overall, an estimated 120 teens and their families have gained over 2,000 signatures. They collected many of them during Houston's Million Mom March on Mother's Day. Teen supporters wore Justice for Jonathan T-shirts there and helped cover NRA sign bearers before the local media's camera lenses.

On this night, Barrica asks about possible locations to expand the petition drive. A girl says yes, her aunt works at a hospital; maybe she can take the petitions there. Another girl volunteers to check with grocery stores about setting up tables during peak Saturday shopping periods.

Many in the Justice for Jonathan squadron are on sabbatical to celebrate high school graduation, but the regulars are on hand. Teenager Akunna Okere, soon to be a senior, buddied with Jonathan throughout her intermediate and high school years. Jonathan's best friend, Adam Laura, had to work tonight. His family is represented by his 20-year-old sister, Brooke. And the Dobie jock in the exercise apparel is Ronnie Strange. He'll be acting as personal trainer for those needing to get in shape for the nearly 200-mile trek to the state capitol.

As the meeting continues, the conversation and close attention of the crowd confirms that strong bonds have developed between Barrica and the kids. Most of them already knew the father; those ties increased as they maintained their hospital watch for Jonathan in the month after the shooting.

While Jonathan lingered on under life support, more than 60 teens joined in group prayer. That moved an onlooker to make an anonymous donation of $1,000 to the cause. As Jonathan remained in critical condition, the kids organized a car wash to raise more funds. It added $10,000 to the movement.

Jonathan's death unified the family and Jonathan's friends even more.

"The teens in our area live in fear now more than it was before, because they saw a friend get shot inside his own house at 11 in the morning," Barrica says. "They do not know who this person is. And if he can do it this one time, he will do it again to another person."

As her husband goes through agenda items at the meeting, Pat stares sadly out the window to another world. Sounds drift in of teenagers racing down Hall Road, shouting inaudible mantras at passing automobiles. Eventually Pat mentally makes her way back to the meeting, resting her chin on her hands and listening intently.  

The movement, she explains, provides a focus for their grief. "When you have an idle mind, you brood, and it doesn't go away," Pat explains. The parents' closeness with the kids was apparent in the predawn hours after Jonathan's funeral.

Jaime got an excited call from his son's friends. After the burial, they told him, they went to a friend's swimming pool to ponder life. A girl took a group Polaroid shot. As the picture slowly appeared, a ghostly haze hovered around this buddy battalion. They were sure it was Jonathan's spirit among them.

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."

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.

State Representative Garnet Coleman of Houston, whose constituents include the Barricas, might support stricter legislation. "I don't think we'd write a bill to outlaw handguns, but we are concerned about enforcement of the legislation," says Todd Edwards, Coleman's chief of staff. "We don't want guns in the hands of kids."

Members of the Justice for Jonathan group believe attitudes can be revised, and so can laws. Ryan Sepulveda, 17, says there is a consensus among teenagers for banning handguns. "It's just the adults who don't agree."

The planned march to the state capitol should show whether this group is merely a collective exercise in grieving or a genuine movement for change. "If we make it to Austin," Jaime says, "nothing will be impossible."

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