As he left the bank, he called his girlfriend, Yamil Mejia, to say he thought a car was following him. Soon after, she heard a struggle over the phone and then the line went dead. At home, his mother had just finished decorating the Christmas tree when she got a panicked call from Mejia, asking if Gerardo had made it back yet. When his mother rushed out to look for him, she found his bloodied body lying in the street a few blocks away. He had been shot in the back. Someone who lived across the street found him with his eyes rolling and blood bubbling from his mouth and nose. The bullet had punctured his lung.
Stephanie Rodolico, who lives in the apartment above the Parragas, remembers that evening. "We heard the commotion downstairs, but they weren't the kind of family to scream and yell," she says. It wasn't until the following morning they learned what had happened, when Gerardo's father called out to Stephanie's husband and started crying, "John, John, they killed my son."
Gerardo's father came to the US from Ecuador and the whole family were doing their best to live the dream. Throggs Neck was a move up for them. Were it not for the planes flying low over the Long Island Sound on their way to La Guardia airport, it would be a quiet neighbourhood. Madonnas stand, arms crossed, in glass cases on clipped lawns. Crime is down and on the porches American flags are up. Gerardo had enrolled in a part-time course in software engineering, computer programming and web design at Columbia University, targeted at promising students from low-income families. "You hardly ever saw him," says John Rodolico. "He was either at work or at school."
After Gerardo's death, the Parragas moved to Queens. On the corner where he fell, a bouquet of dried flowers hangs from a lamppost. "His mother couldn't keep walking past the spot where he died every day," Stephanie says. "They came to this area to better their lives and this is what happens. It shocked all of us."
On an average day, eight Americans aged 19 or under are killed by firearms - over a year, that adds up to more than the number who perished in the World Trade Centre on 9/11. Of those eight victims, according to Centres for Disease Control and Prevention figures for 2004 (the last year for which statistics are available), seven are likely to be male and one female; variously, three are black, four white and one Hispanic; five are likely to be the victims of murder, two suicides and one classed as "unintentional", "undetermined" or "legal intervention" - a police shooting.
In many respects, then, Gerardo's death set the scene for just another day in America. Over the following 24 hours, on this day picked at random, another eight children would lose their lives. Gerardo was the eldest; the youngest was two. Eight were black and one was Hispanic. They died in housing estates, suburbs and malls, at parties and on porches, in areas of average income and of above-average poverty. They were shot by a relative, friend, unknown assassin, a pizza delivery man, an off-duty police officer and by accident. It was Thanksgiving, the biggest travelling weekend of the year, when people are returning home after joining their families for the holiday. By the time the day was over, nine families were one member short.
3.20am As Gerardo Parraga's life was ending, Jonathan Jacques' night out in the Dorchester area of Boston was just beginning. At 9.30pm, he had given his mother, Martine, a big kiss, and she had watched from her bedroom window as he set off to meet friends. "He loves to party," she says. "He likes hip hop, reggae and R&B." She still wavers between present and past tense when talking about her son, who was 18 when he died. He and his friends were heading for The $hort $kirt Affair, a three-day party that had been advertised on MySpace: $5 for boys and $2 for girls. At around 2.45am, one of the loudspeakers caught fire and the partygoers moved outside. Some of Jonathan's friends called it a night, but he was still there after 3am when an argument started. Locals, disturbed by the noise, were ready to call the police when at 3.20am there was the sound of gunshots blended with shrill teenage screams. Two girls, aged 14 and 15, and two boys, aged 16 and 17, were wounded. Jonathan was shot dead.
One of his friends called Martine, who rushed to the hospital. "He died instantly," she says, "but someone told me that the hearing is the last to go. So I got to hold him and talk to him and I thought, even if he was dead, maybe he could still hear me."
Jonathan was known as 40 Cal - as in 40-calibre pistol. It is a testament to the pervasiveness of gun culture among US youth that his friends insist his nickname owed nothing to street violence. His middle name was Calvin and he was 6ft 4in and reed thin, like the barrel of a .40. "He's a comedian," Martine says. "You could never stay mad at him for long. He had a very playful personality. People would always ask him to babysit." Martine, who was born in Haiti and came to the US when she was eight, says she has good days and bad days - "Days when I can't talk about it at all." She still has the soap from his last shower. "Every time he left the house, he would look in the mirror and ask me how many phone numbers I thought he would get that night."
Jonathan dropped out of school. He had a part-time job at a Stop & Shop supermarket, but wanted to go into real estate. Martine had only recently moved from north Dorchester, where she worried her children might get into trouble. She'd thought about moving to the suburbs, but believed Jonathan would then be harassed by "racist white cops asking what he was doing there". There had been a time when Jonathan hung out with the wrong crowd and had had a few brushes with the law, but all of that was behind him now. "He was no hoodlum," his mother says. "He was a good kid."
Since her boys were teenagers, she had been haunted by the fear that guns might take them. There is a connection, she believes, between the violence that blights America and the country's actions elsewhere. "When people see what we're doing in the rest of the world, they think, why not in my neighbourhood? The government sets an example of violence and then it gets played out on the streets."
A mile or so away, at the Louis D Brown Peace Institute, Clementina Chery says American society is failing its children. "This violence did not just happen overnight," she says. "We allowed it to happen. This country does not help people to help themselves. I love Dorchester. But we live in hell. The only resources we get are helicopters, police, cameras and prisons. These are the hellkeepers, but we have no resources to find the peacekeepers."
Chery's son, Louis D Brown, was 15 when he was shot 14 years ago. The institute that bears his name aims to assist families of both victims and perpetrators in the immediate aftermath of shootings, and works in schools and the community to educate people about gun violence. When Jonathan was killed, Chery knew how to help. As the sun came up on the morning of November 26, a memorial for Jonathan, complete with candles and flowers, was already forming in the neighbourhood where he'd grown up. "The victims and perpetrators are getting younger and younger," Chery says.
10.28am Timberlan Addison, two years old, was staying with his 37-year-old father, Timothy, in Tampa, Florida. The west coast of Florida simmered in the mid-70s that day and, amid the palm trees and Spanish moss, you could almost forget that one in five families in this part of the city lives below the poverty line. Timothy had had several brushes with the law, including time in prison for cocaine possession. But neighbours say he was an attentive father who often looked after Timberlan at weekends. Renee Henderson, who lives across the road, described Timothy as "a sweet person". Her daughter, Marquita, was pregnant with his seventh child. Timberlan was his sixth.
That Sunday morning, the two of them had gone out to get some breakfast. Back home, Timberlan was playing, climbing over the furniture, when he reached behind the couch and found a Sig Sauer 9mm semi-automatic. According to the police report, Timothy said he had the gun for protection - there had been several burglaries in the neighbourhood - but usually left it in a safe when his son was home. Timberlan pulled the trigger. When Timothy heard the bang, he picked up his crying son to comfort him, thinking he was just scared. Only when he saw the blood seeping through his red-and-white striped T-shirt did he realise that Timberlan had shot himself.
Timothy ran across the street with Timberlan in his arms, knocking and shouting for Renee. When she opened her door, she saw the baby slumped in one of the white plastic chairs on the porch. She tried to staunch the blood by putting a towel to his chest, and then called an ambulance. Michael Spirk was the first policeman on the scene. He "observed an adult black male holding a small black male child, lying on a sofa in the living room. The adult black male was extremely distraught." When he tried to give Timberlan mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, "copious amounts of blood would run from his wound".
Timberlan was taken to Tampa General Hospital. Timothy was taken to the station for questioning while the police searched the house. They allegedly found two 1oz bags of marijuana in the microwave and more seeds on digital scales on the kitchen counter. They also reportedly recovered a Glock semi-automatic pistol and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, including some for an assault rifle. "He was then handcuffed," reads the police report, "and placed under arrest for being a felon in possession of a firearm, after which he was told that his son had expired as a result of the gunshot wound. Mr Addison then became overcome with grief, and began screaming and crying. After a short time he became more agitated and refused to sit in a chair or be cooperative. He was then transported to central booking by uniformed officers."
Two months later, Timothy was arrested while at his construction job and charged with possession of marijuana with intent to sell, parole violation and possession of a firearm during a drug crime. He still faces state charges of culpable negligence for leaving the gun where Timberlan could get hold of it. Timberlan's mother was at the hearing, where she reacted angrily to the charges. "I forgave him from day one," she said. "These people are not taking into consideration that this man lost his child ... He wakes up every morning crying. He feels like it's his fault."
All of this made Timberlan's death newsworthy for several weeks - far longer than any of the teenagers killed by gunfire that day. It is nothing unusual for a shooting to rate a few paragraphs in the local press and then disappear altogether from the public record. "Over the past few years we have seen America become more desensitised to gun violence," says Alicia Horton of the Brady Campaign, an advocacy group to prevent gun violence. "I'm not sure if it's an emotional reflex or a coping strategy or what, but people have just started to turn the channel. They shut down in a way that they didn't used to."
2pm The case of Brandon Martell Moore, a 16-year-old killed in Detroit, caused barely a ripple. Moore was shot by an off-duty police officer outside the National Wholesale Liquidators on 8 Mile. Brandon was never named by the authorities or the city's two main newspapers. "Why would I want to live in a place where my son can't even be remembered?" says his father, John Henry Moore Sr. "That means he didn't mean nothing to this city."
Brandon was a quiet boy. According to his sister Ebony, the only time he had anything to say was when "he was seeing a girl or making jokes". He and his younger brother were such devotees of Beavis and Butt-head that his mother had to hide the video so they wouldn't keep watching it. "At the funeral, lots of girls I didn't even know came up to me crying and said, 'I was his girlfriend,' " says his mother, Susie Burks, laughing. "There was a whole row of them there."
National Wholesale Liquidators, a warehouse store, sprawls along the edge of Bel-Air mall on the corner of a road lined with boarded-up houses, empty lots and abandoned stores - a burned-out carcass where the heart of a community once beat. On the front door, a sign says that those 16 years and younger must be accompanied by an adult. Brandon had come with four friends to buy video games. They didn't see the sign but, since one of them was 22 and another 19, it didn't apply to them anyway.
Police say Brandon was part of a gang making trouble in the store, and that one of the staff had asked them to leave. On their way out, they ran into an off-duty police officer (who was moonlighting at the store as a security guard): "One teenager took off his coat and rushed the off-duty police officer," according to a police spokesman quoted in the Detroit Free Press. The others got involved and the officer opened fire, killing one and wounding another.
Diane Bukowski, from the local black paper, the Michigan Citizen, was the only reporter to pursue the case and heard an entirely different account from those who were with Brandon that day. They had split up and were walking round the store when Brandon's older brother, John Henry, saw his friends being thrown out. They argued but left anyway, before realising that one of their number wasn't with them. One of the boys (not Brandon) tried to get past the security guard and back into the store. A tussle began. "I saw something fall to the floor. I thought it was a cell phone, but it was a gun in its holster," John Henry said. "The man didn't realise at first. Then he picked it up, put one arm on top of the other arm and started aiming at us. Brandon wasn't involved in anything. He was the last one to take off running, I guess."
According to the autopsy, Brandon was shot in the back. When his father asked for a police report, an officer allegedly told him, "I'm not fucking giving it to you."
The man who killed Brandon is Eugene J Williams. His badge number is 4174. According to various press reports, he has had a colourful history with Detroit's finest. In 1971, he was sacked after he was involved in a fatal hit-and-run accident while under the influence of alcohol. He was reinstated in 1974 on appeal. Five years later, he shot dead an armed and drunk 31-year-old man while in a neighbourhood dispute. Five years after that, he shot his wife in the side during a domestic dispute in which he claimed she lunged at him with a pair of scissors. She survived, and he was able to continue his career in the police force.
Williams was not suspended for the shooting of Brandon Moore; instead, he was assigned to a Detroit traffic unit. When I called the unit, Williams answered the phone and, after some initial equivocation, denied ever having heard of Brandon. Last month an investigation ruled that the shooting was justifiable homicide.
3.30pm An hour and half after Brandon died, and 700 miles to the south-east, a 13-year-old took his late great uncle's shotgun out of a closet and shot his cousin Terry Hayes, 14, square in the face at point-blank range. The bullet went through Terry's left cheek and took off the back of his head. The boys had just returned from church in Petersburg, Virginia, a sleepy town that feels more southern than its geography would have you believe. By all accounts Terry was a regular kid. He wanted to be a businessman or a pro-footballer. He loved sketching, and playing video games with his cousin. "They were always hanging out," says Tania Hayes, Terry's stepmother. "They were beyond cousins. They were best friends." She recalls a time when she grounded Terry only to find his cousin at her door demanding access. "Mrs T, you're either gonna let me in or let him out," he told her.
The Hayes' extended family had been having a tough winter. A few weeks earlier the 13-year-old's great uncle, James Brunt, had been killed by a drunk driver. Uncle "Bo" always told him to stay away from the closet, but now he was gone.
"We're still trying to find out where the gun came from," said police lieutenant Tom Young. "We think it was stolen but whoever stole it never checked to see if it was loaded."
Last month the boy appeared in court, but sentencing was postponed pending psychiatric evaluations. "The judge was asking him simple questions, like, 'Where do you live?' and 'How old are you?'" explains Young, "and he kept saying, 'I don't know.' "
Terry's dad, Terry Sr, has been in the military, stationed in Europe, and knows American gun culture is not inevitable. "I'm torn," he says. "I respect the right to bear arms. But you don't know what fool out there might have a gun or what child in the next room might pick one up next. And then - bang!"
7.49pm In a wealthy suburb of Las Vegas, three time zones away, Jason Moore, Lamar Brown and four friends went to another friend's house to drop off some jeans. The friend and his family were all away, but Lamar knew the code to the garage door and let them in. Once inside, they made themselves at home, logging on to a computer and messing about with Lamar's MySpace page. Lamar's younger sister, Tatiana, describes him affectionately as "a little shrimp always talking like a big lobster". Jason is variously described by friends and family as "cool", "chilled" and "really nice". He wanted to be a rapper and certainly had attitude. He had recently been suspended from school after he "cussed out" a PE teacher who "jumped up in his face". Lamar, 18, and Jason, also 18, were foster brothers. Their mothers had once been friends. But Lamar's mother, Robin Stumps, had become Jason's legal guardian because of his own mother's drug habit. "When you saw one, you saw them both," she says. "They were so close."
But there, in their friend's house, something happened. No one will say what, but it ended shortly before eight o'clock when Lamar shot Jason in the chest with a 20-gauge shotgun, according to the police report. "I didn't know what happened," says Curtis Perkins, one of the boys who was with them. "I heard a gunshot and then suddenly everybody was just running out the house. I ran, too."
According to the police report, Lamar threw the gun in the bushes, called 911 for Jason and then got in a car with three of the friends and drove away. Later, he came to the hospital to see how Jason was faring and was picked up by detectives. News reports that night suggested Jason's condition was critical but stable and recovering. He was pronounced dead at 3.50am the next morning.
"He bled to death," insists family friend Dee-Dee Lovato. "The bullet hit his shoulder and missed his major arteries and organs. Lamar shot him, but he didn't have to die."
"Accidents happen," says Jason's brother, Genesis. "People should watch what they do with guns and shit - they ain't nothing to play with."
I met Jason's family the day that Seung-Hui Cho shot dead 32 of his fellow students at Virginia Tech university before turning the gun on himself. On the way there, I heard several callers to the local radio station ringing in to say the tragedy could have been avoided if the students had been armed.
"If you're not a policeman, you don't need a gun," says Robin Stumps. "I thought I was the best black mother in the world. None of my kids were gang members. None of them has a gun."
"I do," says her eldest son from across the room. "Well, I know how to get one."
Tatiana has Jason's name tattooed on her arm - it is just one way in which the young here remember their dead. Stores in some areas do a good trade in Rest In Peace T-shirts. Inner city walls are decorated with RIP murals. More recently, pages on MySpace have transformed a social networking site into an electronic graveyard, with friends posting testimony to the departed. Jason's page bears a picture of him and Lamar with their arms around each other's shoulders, taken just days before the shooting.
Lamar pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter. Originally it was thought he would get five years' probation but, following the publicity surrounding the shooting, a young woman came forward with an accusation of sexual assault against him that could carry anything from 10 years to life in prison. According to his sister Chenell, he now sits in Clark County Detention centre crying himself to sleep. When it comes to sentencing, his mother will act as a character witness for both him and Jason.
7.57pm Two and a half thousand miles east, in Hyattsville, Maryland, gunfire shattered the quiet of a new housing development near the Martin Luther King Highway. Korey Campbell, 17, had been shot in the back just five minutes from his home. Korey was going places. Specifically, the next day he was going back to Keystone, Pennsylvania, where he was just two weeks from graduating from Job Corps, a vocational training programme for young adults. Korey had been doing well: three weeks earlier, his supervisor's report had described him as an "outstanding young man" with "excellent leadership skills" - "Korey will be an asset to whomever and wherever he takes employment."
"He was ready for life," says his mother, Vonda Campbell. "The first thing he had to do was learn to drive. But he was ready ... He was ready." Vonda had struggled to make sure her children made something of themselves. Her eldest son got a basketball scholarship to attend New Haven university.
Korey had come back for Thanksgiving, and when he was shot he was walking home from a friend's house to pack for the next day's trip. "A lot of women around here have lost their children for no reason," Vonda says. "I would hold my breath when Korey was back until he got on the bus for Pennsylvania. I chose to send him away from this area."
Korey was the fourth person to be shot in the area - notorious for drug dealing, she says - in the past four months. "They had a vigil right there after two previous murders, but I never thought it would happen to me." She pulls out a small black bag with some of Korey's things in it, including some T-shirts and his favourite chewing gum. She hands me a picture of him in his coffin. "I can't look at it," she says. "If his sister comes in, pretend it's something else. She can't handle that at all." The prison where Korey's father is incarcerated would not let him out for the funeral.
The police have not contacted Vonda in several months to tell her of any developments in the case. "It feels like nobody cares," she says. "Like he was never here. Just another black kid dead. But he was here. He was my child. He existed."
The Campbells live just 25 minutes' drive from Washington DC - the nation's capital and, tellingly, the place where young people are by far the most likely to be shot dead (more than 15 times more so than in New York state). It is also home to the Supreme Court, which upholds the second amendment of the constitution enshrining the right to bear arms. Back in the 18th century, this was a revolutionary measure, crafted to protect the general population from tyrannical government (notably Britain). Nowadays, the citizenry are more likely to shoot each other. Even the most strident supporters of gun control, such as the Brady campaign, say they respect the second amendment. "We don't even want to get into the discussion," says Alicia Horton. "We are not a gun-banning organisation. The number one preventative measure to stop young people being killed by guns would be to reduce access to firearms. Regardless of how they died, if young people couldn't put their hands on a gun, then other young people wouldn't be shot." Most Americans seem to agree: a Pew research poll shows that while public support for greater gun control has waned over the past decade, the majority still back it.
But it does not look likely to happen any time soon - the gun lobby can still rally sufficient support to take gun control off the political agenda regardless of who's in power. Before the 2000 election, the National Rifle Association boasted that it was so close to George Bush that it would be working "out of his office". They have been pretty much true to their word. (The NRA turned down repeated requests for comment for this article.) Just a few weeks before these nine youngsters died, the Democrats won control of both Senate and House of Representatives in the Congressional elections. John Conyers, who became the Democratic chairman of the House judiciary committee, pledged he would not "support or forward to the House any legislation to ban handguns".
9.45pm In Cherry Hill, Baltimore, 14-year-old Bernard Simon was sitting on a friend's porch, just around the corner from his home, when someone shot him. At one end of the street where he lived, searchlights stand on 20ft poles; at the other is a flashing neon-blue light, courtesy of Baltimore police, with the message "24/7 Believe". No one on the small block where Bernard was shot will admit to having even heard of him. His mother has moved away. The only evidence that Bernard was ever there is some graffiti scrawled on a power box: "Hez hooliganz. RIP Bernie."
Cherry Hill has the feel of a South African township. With just a few ways in and out, it is easier to contain than it is to police. Sitting on a promontory poking out into the Potapsco River, it is not on the way to anywhere. Outsiders have no reason to go there, and many of those who live there have no reason to leave because they don't have work. More than half of its 8,000 residents live in poverty.
"If you're in Cherry Hill, then chances are it's your destination," says Cathy McClain, executive director of the Cherry Hill Trust, a local group dedicated to revitalising the area.
Boarded-up houses punctuate the estate. In what is left of the playpark opposite Bernard's former home stands half a slide with small steps leading to thin air. The night before I arrived in town, somebody was shot dead. Gangs became rampant in the 80s; membership was based on where you lived. And if gang life is no longer synonymous with the drugs trade as it once was, the dealing continues.
Bernard was a member of the Up The Hill gang - not to be mistaken for the Hillside gang. "I don't know what you can do to fix this," says McClain. "We just haven't been successful in persuading these kids to want to live beyond their teenage years. They don't seem to want to be grandparents. They'd rather live on on somebody's T-shirt. If they're 21, then they're old."
Bernard's assailant was never found. Indeed, not one of the four cases of teenagers killed by unknown gunmen that Sunday has been solved.
10.15pm Less than an hour after Bernard Simon was gunned down, a call came in to Super Crown Pizza in suburban Atlanta for a home delivery to the Huntingwood Pointe housing complex two miles away. Super Crown has a list of addresses it won't deliver to. It's not difficult to see why - pizza delivery is a dangerous business in these parts. "A lot of my deliverymen have been robbed," says Muhammad Iftkhar, a Pakistani immigrant who arrived in the US 13 years ago. "They steal the money, they steal the food, the car. One time they took all the man's clothes and car keys. The guy just walked back here in his underwear." Another time, Muhammad had a pistol stuck in his mouth while the place was cleaned out. The chefs work behind bulletproof glass. Muhammad won't say whether or not he keeps a gun in the shop. "My main concern is business," he says. "I don't want any kind of trouble."
It was Zaid Mahmood's turn to take the pizza. Zaid had risked his life to deliver pizzas before: four months earlier, he had been beaten and had all his money and his green card stolen.
Huntingwood Pointe is one of several housing estates that sits back off a main road and is enclosed on all other sides by trees - it was not on Super Crown's no-go list. Zaid delivered the pizza and was on his way back to his car when, according to police reports, "he was approached by a group of three or four people who demanded his money". They told him to lie on the ground and hand over his car keys. Zaid stayed standing and handed over the keys. One of the boys, 14-year-old Kenyatta Calhoun, told Zaid to hand over his mobile phone. Zaid allegedly put his hand into his pocket, as though he were going for his phone, took out his gun and shot Kenyatta several times. Two of the boys, one of whom had already got into Zaid's car, ran away. Kenyatta lay dying under a tree.
Chikobi Bush, 19, says he heard the shots and ran out to see what was going on. "I saw Kenyatta lying on the ground. He was breathing, but he couldn't say nothing." He describes Kenyatta as a "cool guy". "He used to come out, sit around and talk to people." It's 11 o'clock in the morning when I visit, and Chikobi is doing just that himself, sitting and talking in one of the stairwells. One of his friends struggles to recall Kenyatta.
"The short nigga?"
"No, the light-skinned guy."
"He got shot? Shit!"
A lot of people get shot around here, they say - "For drugs, gangs, girls ... anything."
When I ask whether everyone has guns, they just laugh. "You knock on a door and ask, 'Have you got a gun?' and see if they don't pull a pistol on your ass," says the friend and laughs some more.
What do they need guns for?
"Protection," says Chikobi.
A few months earlier, Georgia had passed a "stand your ground" law that permitted state residents to use deadly force to respond to threats in public places, with no duty to retreat. Zaid walked free.
And so Thanksgiving Sunday ended in Atlanta as it began in the Bronx - with robbery, death and the sound of gunshot. No one would know from where the next day's deaths would come. The only certainty was that they would come.
On the morning of November 27, a gunlovers' website, glocktalk.com, ran a discussion thread about Kenyatta's death the night before.
The Fly wrote, "I do love a cleaner gene pool."
Butcher asked, "How many 14-year-old gangbangers are gonna be killed this week?"
Lcarreau responded, "Not enough."