Malek Mercer was shot dead just days before he would have turned 16 - because of a squabble over his designer belt. His mother doubts there will be tighter gun laws, Ines Pohl writes from Washington.
A vacuum cleaner, a large box fan, a black corner sofa with cushions in black and white zebra stripes, a television set. That is all that stands in Sharon Becks's living room. She lives in Oxon Hill, Maryland, southeast of Washington. The carpet is beige and slightly stained. The walls are bare. Except for the area just to the left of the front door.
Becks's big smile can't outshine the overwhelming sense of loss that comes over you when you enter the room. There are pictures of Malek as a baby, as an infant, as a teenager. With his friends, his cousin, in his mother's arms. Clad in a baseball cap, iPhone headphones dangling casually over his ears, he makes the sign of the horns.
Round, square and heart-shaped photos are attached to a white board with adhesive tape. They're decorated with signatures and wishes in different colors from friends and family members. Next to it, a collage, made by Malek's classmates. His teacher also signed it. A glittery Happy Birthday balloon from last year lies flat and airless between the two. An inflated balloon floats above. It is from last week. A small table with candles is pressed against the wall.
He never stood a chance
Malek Mercer was 15 when he died. One week before what would have been his 16th birthday, an assailant shot him in the neck. They had quarreled on the bus. His friends say the man wanted Malek's designer belt.
For three days Malek fought for his young life. Then he was declared brain-dead. He was taken off life support. He never stood a chance. The shot had shattered his spine, and ripped apart the blood supply to his brain. It was the first day of summer vacation.
He died three days before he would have celebrated his birthday with his family. His mother had already bought him a present: a wristwatch with a Superman dial. Even as a child Malek had loved Superman. Becks buried it with him - along with a Superman sticker from his elder brother's car.
'Nothing is safe here anymore'
Becks slipped into the present tense when she talked about how she had embraced her son for the last time.
"He gave me a big hug, told me he loved me. I just never knew that would be my last hug and kiss from him. But that is how he always greets me, that's how he always leaves me - with a big hug and a kiss, he tells me he loves me."
He'd gone through a wild phase. So many nights she had been afraid for him. But last year he had begun to settle down," she said, and it looked as if he'd come through the worst times of puberty. "I didn't worry too much about him anymore. And then it just happened. Nothing is safe here anymore. It's just crazy."
Washington, DC is a dangerous place, especially for young black men. Last year, 202 people died in greater Washington from gunshot wounds. That's why Becks wanted to get farther from the poor black neighborhoods where the most killings occur.
Most of all, the 43-year-old would like to move very far away and take her children with her. She has another son and two daughters. And already two grandchildren. The younger of them was born only two months before Malek was shot. Little Mason is often with her - a source of strength and hope.
There is no morning when Becks wakes up without tears in her eyes. She thinks about Malek - and his killer Derryck Antjuan Decuir, a 22-year-old who had already repeatedly come into conflict with the police - for drug dealing, a stabbing and illegal weapons possession. He had been sentenced to three years' imprisonment, but in the evening when he shot Malik, he'd just been let out on probation. The police caught him only a few hours after Malek's murder.
"It is hard to put years on my son's life because my son will never come back," Becks said. "But that is the only thing they can do, to give him years. It's just hard."
Becks fights back tears. And she fights back her anger. She is tired that every day young people, even children, die - simply because young men fire off a few rounds in the neighborhood, and their stray bullets end lives. Or because someone wants a belt, or a mobile phone - and thus commits murder.
Sit-in in Washington
"Gun violence is a big issue and in DC there is a lot of talk about what they want to do but there is still a lot of killing," she said. "So I would like to see more action than talk in DC, in reference to the gun violence."
Many lawmakers have had enough of the perpetual debates. They don't want to discuss stricter gun laws while an average of seven children under the age of 19 are killed every day. Each year, 30,000 people are killed by guns in the United States.
On Tuesday, Democratic representativesintend to return to civil disobedience with a sit-in in Congress.
"How many more of our children have to die before something happens," Becks asked. Her eyes look as broken as her voice sounds. She says she does not believe that anything will ever change. The gun lobby, she says, is too strong, too powerful. And politicians are too worried about their constituents.
Sharon Becks now worries about her other children and grandchildren.
"To lose another of my loved ones, that would be hard, too hard."