This story was reported by The Trace, a nonprofit newsroom covering gun violence in America.
Tashante McCoy-Ham was scheduled to read a personal essay in front of her college English class, so she wanted to practice in front of an audience. Her fiance was in her kitchen cooking, while his best friend Deion Short sat at the kitchen table nearby.
The professor had asked the class to write about a childhood incident that changed them. McCoy-Ham, who had returned to college in her early 30s, chose the night she and three other people were shot after a high school dance in 1994, when she was 15. As she began reading the essay aloud, her fiance turned away from the stove and looked at Short. The men laughed uncomfortably.
“Uh, why is this tickling you all?” asked McCoy-Ham.
Short, then 34, with a round face and kind eyes, looked at her. “Man,” he said, “I did time for that.”
All three had grown up in Stockton, California, a Central Valley town long plagued by poverty and gun violence. But until then, none of them knew that they shared this tragic connection.
When McCoy-Ham started hanging out with the men in her early 30s, they’d run through a long list of friends, local bars and memorable parties to see if their paths had crossed before. The drive-by shooting outside a dance one rainy spring night more than a decade earlier had not come up.
Short had been driving the car. An older man, whom he had not known well, had been the shooter. McCoy-Ham’s fiance had been riding in the back seat.
Meanwhile, McCoy-Ham had been standing in line at a payphone with friends when a bullet hit her left knee. Short was the only person who was ever charged in connection with the crime, and he ended up spending more than two years in a youth detention facility after being convicted of assault with a deadly weapon.
Now that the three friends knew about this bit of intertwined history, they were left to make sense of it. How had the teenagers, who had so many similarities, been touched by the same act of violence in such different ways?
They agreed to talk to The Trace about how the incident changed them and what they now understand: Gun violence was so common in their community that they came to see it as normal, even though it isn’t in the broader world.
“How had the teenagers, who had so many similarities, been touched by the same act of violence in such different ways?”
In the months leading up to the dance, to which all of Stockton’s public high school students were invited, Short had been acting more and more reckless. His mother, who along with his grandmother had raised him, had died from lupus a year earlier. Her death felt like a breaking point for the 17-year-old. He started skipping school and stopped playing football. He was arrested several times for selling drugs and fighting.
Through a cousin who worked as a mechanic, Short met men who dressed well and drove expensive cars — men he knew sold drugs and belonged to gangs. Soon, Short was drawn into their world. One of them sold him and two friends a 9 mm handgun for $200. “I saw all that and I thought, ‘Oh, I’m going to do this,’” he said. “It’s not until you get engulfed in it that you start learning about the heartache.”
On the night of the dance, Short was determined to have fun — and excited to meet some new girls, since students from every local high school would be there. But a fight was simmering outside on the lawn between teens from Short’s neighborhood and a group of teens from across town. Soon, the fistfight was interrupted with a gunshot. Short ran to his car, which was parked up the block.
A guy in his 20s whom Short knew casually got in on the passenger side. He asked if Short had a gun. He did, locked in the glove box. The guy told Short to drive around the block, back to the dance. “I’m going to show them what it’s all about,” he said.
“I don’t even think I hesitated,” Short said. He remembers the man firing several shots toward a crowd of teenagers. As they sped away, no one in the car knew whether anyone had been hit.
McCoy-Ham had to beg her protective mother to let her go to the dance. It was a chance to hang out with friends from different schools, and also to spend time with a guy she had just started dating. He was the reason she was determined to go, McCoy-Ham remembers, and she vaguely remembers talking to him at the dark edges of the dance floor.
When a fight started outside, McCoy-Ham and her friends left and got in line at a payphone to arrange a ride home. She doesn’t remember much of what happened next: loud bangs, screaming and getting knocked to the ground. She hit her head and felt pain in her leg. Cold raindrops fell on her face. She wondered if she was still alive.
A bullet had pierced the bend in her left knee, but she was treated and released from the hospital that night. In the days that followed, no one around her acted like it was a big deal.
“Once you feel like you’ve gotten away, the scaredness disappears and you feel a weird sense of achievement, like you’re invincible.”
Short was driving the same car three days later when the police pulled him over on the freeway. By then, he’d heard that his passenger’s shots had hit some kids outside the dance, but looking back, he doesn’t recall feeling responsible for what happened.
“It was exciting,” he said. “Once you feel like you’ve gotten away, the scaredness disappears and you feel a weird sense of achievement, like you’re invincible.”
Nor did he worry about the people who had been hit. “I thought, ‘Well, I didn’t do it, so I didn’t have that burden,’” he said. “Now today, I understand my place in that whole deal. I was the driver. I had the ability to prevent the whole thing from happening.”
He wasn’t charged right away. Police questioned and released him. Later, they issued a warrant for his arrest. He went on the run but was caught 14 months later after he was involved in another shootout. A judge sentenced him to more than six years in a youth detention facility. “I was scared,” he said. “Somehow, all that time I was watching everybody else get locked up, I didn’t think I was going to get locked up, too.”
Short spent 29 months — a reduced sentence based on a state formula — in the now-closed Dewitt Nelson Youth Correctional Facility in Stockton. He remembers lying in his bunk in the dark at night, thinking about what was going on at home and what he’d do when he got out.
He also reflected on some of the decisions he’d made. In anger management class and a voluntary group called “The Inner Wounded Child,” he began thinking more deeply about his often-absent father, his mother’s death and the anger that he was carrying. Through those emotional conversations, he learned that he wasn’t the only one; others there had been hurt, too, and lashed out in their own ways.
“There was a lot I had pushed down,” he said. “When I left, I was a lot better than I was before.”
“We were conditioned to think shootings were just part of growing up in the ’hood.”
Over time, McCoy-Ham had to come to terms with the trauma of the gun violence she’d endured. Her brother Terri was one of 71 people murdered in 2012 — a record, still standing today, for homicide in Stockton.
She started speaking publicly about her experiences and encouraging community members to share theirs. She told Stockton police, who have been trying to repair their relationship with the community over the last several years, how much it would have meant if they had explained things better and treated her family more respectfully in the days after her brother died.
On the night they found out they had both been involved in the same shooting, McCoy-Ham and Short didn’t talk about it in any detail. In the decade that followed, McCoy-Ham married her fiance, had a daughter and got divorced. Even as she began working in gun violence prevention and learning about the effects of trauma, she and Short didn’t speak candidly about the night that changed both their lives.
Recently, the two retold their stories in separate interviews with The Trace and agreed to do a joint interview. Short said, “If she wants to talk more about this, I’m going to sit down and listen to her.”
They agreed that shootings felt commonplace to them as they were growing up. McCoy-Ham remembered that no one recognized how traumatic it might have been for her to be shot. Her friends thought it was funny and teased her about the tight pants she’d been wearing, which prevented paramedics from treating her wound. Others told her they thought it was cool that she had been shot.
“We were conditioned to think shootings were just part of growing up in the ’hood,’” McCoy-Ham said. “In these communities where there is so much gun violence, there are things that happen that affect who you are that are never acknowledged.”
“It happens so often that it’s almost normal for us, which is not right,” Short said. “Like, I thought, ‘You’ll be all right, it’s just your leg.’”
McCoy-Ham said their friendship changed her perspective about people who commit gun crimes. As a teen, she thought the people who shot her were crazy or evil — and totally different from her and her friends. When Short became her friend later, she realized how little separated them.
“If we were to do a crime analysis in Stockton, we would discover a lot of overlap between survivors of violence and perpetrators of gun violence,” she said. Research bears that out.
“There’s always a deeper story about how people become who they are,” she said.
Short, who is now a short-haul truck driver and a father of four, said McCoy-Ham is not the only victim of the 1994 shooting he encountered as an adult. A few years before he met McCoy-Ham, a friend asked him to give a guy a ride after a party. As Short got to talking to the man in the car, it dawned on him that he was one of the people who had been shot at the high school dance.
Short told him who he was and got ready for the man’s reaction. But the man was understanding, and they both told each other how glad they were that they had survived to adulthood.
“We both knew that who we were then is not who we are now,” Short said. “It was a good feeling knowing neither of us was holding a grudge.”
Short said a lot of things motivated him to stop selling drugs and carrying guns ― but meeting McCoy-Ham was one of them. “It made me start thinking back on some of the things I was involved in and realizing they definitely weren’t cool,” he said.
McCoy-Ham said if people living in communities where gun violence is common can see and talk about the horror that they experience, they will be in a better place to push the police and community leaders to make changes that will help reduce it.
“How can we expect law enforcement to be passionate about something that our community itself isn’t willing to address?” she asked. “We need to be brave enough to have the courageous conversations which lead to solutions.”
Short said he worries about his kids, who are now teenagers in Stockton. “My kids are losing friends at a faster rate than I was,” he said. “They are going to so many funerals at that young age.”
Both hope their kids’ generation will see that gun violence is not normal — and that you never know who you might hurt.
“The fact that we can tell our story now shows me that God had a purpose for us. That’s why we didn’t die. That’s why it wasn’t a fatal shot,” McCoy-Ham said. “We hope our stories will protect our kids and our grandkids.”