Kyle Morris, Jr., 22, vacillated between laughter and tears as he sat on a couch between his parents and recounted the night that he and his friend, Stephen Johnson, were shot.
Morris, who graduated from Cheyney University with honors, and Johnson, a 22-year-old Temple University student, were so close that they referred to each other as cousins. At a New Year’s Eve party at the hardscrabble North Philly corner of 17th and Venango, both Morris and Johnson were shot. When the smoke cleared, Morris had been hit six times. A young woman cradled Johnson’s body in her lap. He was still. He was bloodied. He was lifeless.
“He was about to graduate this semester,” Morris said, his voice quaking as he spoke about Johnson. “He just got promoted [at his job as an ambulance dispatcher]. How do you? … I just don’t get it. Why do people have to … I just don’t get it.”
Despite his protestations to the contrary, Morris gets it in ways that others never could. He’s endured the pain of six bullets burning through his flesh. He’s grieved for a close friend who lost his life to a gun. He’s watched his mother cry as he’s recounted being shot. President Obama, who spoke passionately for a Congressional gun control vote in his State of the Union speech, or Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, who presides over a city where 284 homicides were committed with guns last year, might grapple with guns from a policy perspective, but Morris knows gun violence intimately. That’s why he believes he can help bring it to an end.
“I guess we go through things and God puts us through a lot because we have to [go through a lot],” Morris said. “But at the end of the day I just kind of wish this never had to have happened. I just wish God could’ve come to me in a dream and just said, ‘Don’t forget Kyle, stop the violence.’”
It didn’t happen that way, however, and while Morris regrets what happened to him that night, it’s difficult for him to forget.
It was New Year’s Eve, and when Morris arrived at the apartment, which belonged to a female friend, Johnson answered the door. “[Stephen] said, ‘There’s some girls here, the food is great, we’re having a good time …’ He was just letting me know it was going to be a good night.”
And for a few hours, it was, Morris said, because most of the party attendees knew each other. There was a young woman who’d previously sang in a church choir with Morris. There were others who’d attended high school with him. There were college students in attendance, as well.
“We were having a really good time,” said Morris, adding that while people were coming in and out most of the night, he had no reason to be concerned about anyone who was there, because they were all positive people.
But at 3:28 a.m., an unfamiliar group of young men entered, and that’s when everything changed.
“An argument started and even though the argument was in the process of being resolved, someone in the shooter’s party just decided they wanted to take it there,” Morris said. “I don’t know. He just decided he wanted to fight.”
Morris said the gunshots started shortly after the fight, stunning everyone. Standing frozen in the middle of the room, Morris had already been hit several times before he turned and saw the gunman shooting in his direction. A friend pulled Morris to the ground and Morris took cover behind a counter.
In the chaos and fear that followed, the shots stopped, the smoke cleared, and Morris crawled out into the open. His friend Stephen Johnson, the man he’d come to call his cousin, was dead. Since then, grief has been Morris’s constant companion.
“I just miss him,” Morris said, choking back tears. “I miss him. I really do.”
In recent days, 22-year-old Lawrence Jeffries was arrested in connection with the murder of Stephen Johnson, but Morris said that’s not enough. The violence has to stop, he said, and it will take more than a sermon by a preacher, or a march through an affected community, or even a presidential speech to make that happen.
“I’m a big fan of President Obama, but we need more than him,” Morris said. “We’re gonna need more than the Democrats or one political party. We’re gonna need more than politicians. This has to be a holistic approach. We have to approach this from all angles and all sides. Everyone has to do their part because we all have a voice.”