WHEN SHE WAS JUST 13, "LISA" SERVED AS THE go-between in a gun sale. She wasn't aspiring to be a criminal at such a young age. It just sort of happened. A 15-year-old buddy wanted to sell a used .22 handgun to a 14-year-old buyer she knew from her junior high on the south end. "I didn't ask any questions," she says. "I just went and gave him the gun." Then she headed off to softball practice.

That same year (1998), three people she knows were shot. And one sixth grader at her school shot another. Lisa knows a lot of young people who carry guns. "It's not like it's a big deal," she says. "There's no certain way that you do it. It's not like on TV. You just go out and you get one."

There is no shortage of places to find guns in Washington state, a pro-gun mecca that ranks first in the nation when it comes to per capita NRA memberships and concealed weapons permits. So, it's no surprise that weapons end up in the hands of teens, whether funneled through a drug dealer working a nearby corner or a friend of a friend of a friend. As one school security guard puts it: "I know for a fact that if you want to get a gun into school, you can."

National surveys show that more than half of U.S. students in grades six through 12 know how and where to purchase a firearm. A February 1999 report from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms shows that people between the ages of 17 and 23 are most likely to carry guns; crime stats show that the 15-20 age group has the highest homicide rate in the country.

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But how does a kid in friendly Seattle pick up a pistol? Where do they go? Who do they talk to?

One kid, up in the U District, says his friend's brother-in-law can hook people up. He's in the military, and lifts weapons from Army warehouses. Another teen, rolling dice by a school gym in the CD, claims: "You're asking the right people, but you can't get no free information. You get me $100, I'll get you a gun."

"I got a gun right now," adds his companion, who looks about 13. "You wanna see it?" No thanks, you little shit.

Probably the best way to get a firearm--if you're too young to buy one legally, that is--is to steal it, from your parents or from someone else's home. And in Washington, there are plenty to choose from: public health statistics show that more than 41,000 homes in King County contain unlocked, loaded weapons.

Nobody knows how many illegal weapons there are on the street in Seattle, or in any city in the U.S. (the Seattle Police Department confiscated 1,700 weapons last year). Tracking guns is a major challenge in a country where the majority of the population sees gun registration as either a personal insult or an attack on the Constitution. The resounding 1997 defeat of state I-676, the handgun safety initiative, was proof of that.

Kids looking to make a big haul might knock off a gun shop. In one case from 1997, a crew from the Young Oriental Troop, a Rainier Valley gang, was caught trafficking guns stolen from a Wenatchee gun shop. The owner of the store was murdered during the robbery. The three people who were caught distributing the stolen weapons around Seattle--all underage when they were arrested--were sentenced to federal prison last month.

Gun shows are good too. As frequently as once a month, there's a gun show somewhere in rural Washington, and the unlicensed dealers (oh, I'm sorry, "collectors") who set up cash-and-carry booths don't have to run background checks, or even check a buyer's ID. Second-hand sales are similarly unregulated. If you buy a gun at a shop and sell it out of your car trunk, nobody has to fill out any pesky paperwork.

Sure, there are laws in place to keep guns out of the hands of young people. Nobody under 18 can buy a firearm of any type, and people under 21 are forbidden from purchasing handguns. Federal laws say adults can't buy guns for, or loan guns to, minors. The trouble is, those laws aren't easy to enforce, and it's a rare day when a gun dealer is arrested.

Steve Martin of the Seattle Police Department's gang unit explains that while gun trafficking in Seattle isn't as advanced as it is in cities back east, it is a serious problem. "Kids can generally get whatever drugs or guns they're looking for," he says. "It may take a day or two, but they can get it."

He cites two of the most popular weapons among Seattle's teens: the Lorcin .25, a cheaply made handgun that sells for about $85 on the street, and the TEC-9, a menacing-looking semi-automatic that sells for up to $500 on the street, although it was banned by Congress in 1994. The street mark-ups on these weapons are substantial--Butch's Gun Shop on Aurora in Seattle sells the Lorcin .25 for $59.95 and a modified Antratec (basically the same as the TEC-9) for $189.95.

Though Martin singles out the TEC-9 and the Lorcin as trusty faves, it's tough to verify their popularity. Statistics compiled by the ATF show that there wasn't a single trace request (the way police find an original owner) in Seattle for either one between August 1, 1997 and July 31, 1998. In fact, figures compiled by the ATF show that relatively few guns from Seattle are sent in for tracing at all (only 265 last year, down from 487 in 1996, and compared to 16,222 in Chicago). There were only 16 traces requested for guns taken from juveniles, and only six were successful. The six came from Washington, California, Alaska, Oregon, and Pennsylvania.

When asked what kinds of weapons her friends keep, Lisa and her friends say brand isn't important. "The kind of gun don't matter," one of Lisa's buddies says. "Anything that shoots."

They explain that there aren't easy conclusions to be drawn about the gun market in Seattle, and that the stereotypes the media relies on are all wrong. Everybody's different, and each gets his or her gun for individual reasons--whether it's to look extra-hard, for protection, or to commit a robbery. Lisa says gun ownership among school kids is commonplace enough that most students accept it. "Nobody gets freaked out about it or anything," she says. "It's not like 'Ooh, he's got a gun.' Really, it's no big deal."

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