Richard McLemore first saw a gun outside his home when he was about 13.
McLemore and his friend Andre had gotten hold of "three little crack rocks" and headed down to Sherburne Avenue in St. Paul to try to make money.
They wanted to buy clothes and games.
Instead, they got robbed.
Grow the Future of Public Media
MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!
"He literally took our drugs from us right in our face," said McLemore, who is now 40. "I mean, this guy is twice my age, twice my size. What am I going to do?"
A few days later, McLemore's friend came by his home and pulled something wrapped in a cloth out of his pocket. It was a handgun and three loose bullets.
"It looked like an old western gun," McLemore said. "A chrome, .22 revolver with a white handle."
McLemore still doesn't know where the antique gun came from. But he knew its purpose.
"I was well aware of the destruction guns can cause, bullets can cause — I was well aware of how they made people feel and what they do to people, especially when you point them at them," McLemore said. "I really went from feeling like I had no power, to feeling like I had absolute power."
About 5 percent of teenagers in the United States regularly carry a gun, according to 2016 statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That puts them at more risk for violence and incarceration.
McLemore began carrying a gun as a teenager because it made him feel powerful. But at 17, he shot a man to death. McLemore still wrestles with the destruction he caused with that weapon.
'The next time I saw him, he was done'
As a teenaged pizza deliveryman moonlighting as a drug dealer, McLemore had a taste for "flashy" cars. He'd always look for a place in the car to hide his gun, the same way he'd kick the tires or look at the engine.
The gun was a tool of the drug trade. But he said it also felt natural to carry, and to use.
The first few times he fired a gun, he assumed cops would be knocking down his door at any moment. But nothing happened, and he grew bolder.
"I remember one time I was running down the street shooting at a guy as he was driving away in his car because he threatened to come back over a craps game," McLemore said. "No big deal, I come back down the street, laugh it off, reload my gun."
McLemore doesn't know how many times he fired a weapon at another human being. And he doesn't know how many people were hit.
"I wanted people to be scared. I wanted people to understand that I'm this big, bad, ugly guy," McLemore said. "It made me feel like I was a man when I was a child — and I really didn't understand what I was getting into."
McLemore went to juvenile detention after being caught with a gun, but he wasn't deterred.
He kept selling.
He kept carrying.
In the winter of 1995, when McLemore was 17 years old, his life changed. He sold drugs to a regular customer named Boney Green. But when he later counted the cash from the sale, it was short: $19.
"I took it personally, and it's sad, but at that point I knew I could kill him," McLemore said. "I knew the next time I saw him he was done."
While dropping off drugs at an apartment on East Sixth Street in St. Paul, McLemore saw Green again. It was in an old mansion that had been converted into apartments, with narrow hallways carved out between the units.
McLemore typically wouldn't have had his gun because he was coming right from school. But that day he was carrying his .45.
He told Green to come into the hallway. McLemore closed the door behind him.
Green took off down a long narrow staircase at the back of the house, jumping four or five stairs at a time. McLemore followed.
"I waited until I knew I had my aim right. I took a breath, then I fired. And he dropped," McLemore said. "He didn't move."
McLemore hit him with four out of five shots.
Time felt like it slowed. He remembers feeling like he was watching himself as he walked away from the house, into the daylight of the street, the sound of gunfire still ringing his ears.
"I'm thinking, man, people are going to be running, cars are going to stop. But I remember looking to my left and seeing these girls playing double dutch, I mean, 20 feet away, a couple of houses down," McLemore said. "Just playing double dutch like nothing happened."
It felt like maybe the murder didn't even matter. Maybe no one cared about another shooting in that neighborhood.
But police had McLemore's nickname, Kwik, and his pager number. Three days later, police arrested him for murder outside his high school.
McLemore turned 18 in the old Ramsey County jail on the banks of the Mississippi River. He remembers his friends calling him on their chunky, primitive car phone as they drove to senior prom. They told him to go to the window that overlooked the windy road by the river. He waved his arms as they passed in a limo.
'It took my victim's family to see the God in me'
The family of McLemore's victim lived out of state and didn't attend the trial. Instead, they sent a letter the prosecutor read in court after McLemore was convicted:
"This is our brother; this is our son; this is my dad. How dare you?"
But it's how the family ended that letter that still sticks with him.
They wrote that they hoped he would find God.
"I constantly reflect on that," McLemore said. "And I try to see that God is really in everybody. Because at one point in my life, it took my victim's family to see the God in me."
McLemore didn't have an overnight transformation. It took a decade for him to even stop being angry at his victim.
"I had to see the destruction that I caused for it to sink in," McLemore said. "And then one day, I had to learn to forgive myself, so I could move on."
McLemore left prison for a halfway house in the spring of 2013, having spent half his life in jail. Since then, he's slowly built up his new life.
He works at St. Paul's Ujamaa Place, a nonprofit that focuses on helping African-American men.
McLemore's boss, Otis Zanders, said Ujamaa tries to create a safe environment for young men by first meeting their basic needs of housing, clothing and a job. Then, Zanders said, the men have time to reflect on their life choices.
"A person like Richard, I think you'll see that new birth, or reformation, because he had time to reflect on his past and say, 'I can do better,'" Zanders said.
Sometimes the men McLemore works to connect with at Ujamaa are coming off the streets, sometimes they're coming straight out of prison, sometimes they just need a little help. McLemore finds them housing, or clothes for a job interview or just talks about their lives. He often doesn't mention his past.
"You don't just get on your soapbox," McLemore said. "It's building that foundation, so when it comes time to have those hard conversations about illegal activities, carrying guns, I can have those conversations and be confident that I'm being heard."
McLemore tells the men that most problems in life can be solved. But not everything can be undone.
"When you point that gun and you pull that trigger, what you are doing is so absolute. It is so final," McLemore said. "There is not a 'sorry' or amount of time in the world that can heal the damage you're about to do."
Now 40-years-old, guns make McLemore uncomfortable. They're not tools to get money or cars or power. Now, every time he sees a gun, the revulsion he feels is a physical reminder of what he used a gun to take.
"Guns turn my stomach now. I don't like looking at them," McLemore said. "What disgusts me, is knowing that I used that weapon, to destroy so much."