So, last weekend, nine people were shot in a mall in Columbia, SC. And hours later, two teenagers were killed and several others injured during a shooting at a party in Pittsburgh.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Scott E. Schubert, the Pittsburgh police chief, said of the deadly shooting there early Easter day.
Fight crime or reform the police? As the killings increase, mayors nationwide insist they can do both.
The stream of shootings comes amid a grim backdrop of increased gun violence nationwide, and at a time when mayors, police chiefs and mediators working on the streets to stem the bloodshed have already reported a disturbing shift. Complaints or minor misses that could have once led to fist blows, they said, were instead suddenly escalated to shots.
In some of the recent shootings that left several people dead or wounded, officials said the shooting appeared to be linked to clashes between people or groups gathered in public or crowded areas. But this violence underscored that shootings that left several people wounded or killed have increased markedly compared to before the pandemic, and the ongoing number has public officials and other timid ones heading into the summer months.
Columbus, Ohio, Mayor Andrew J. Ginther said the recent series of shootings from Sacramento to Pittsburgh made him feel horrified, angry and frustrated that “we keep seeing these things happen over and over and over again. . “
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So far this year, the number of shootings that killed or injured at least four people is much higher than it was at this point just a few years ago, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a research group. (The group categorizes “mass shootings” as cases where at least four people were killed or wounded, not including the shooter.)
The grim figure rose Friday when police say an armed man in northwest Washington shot randomly from an apartment building, injuring three adults and a child.
The past two years have been bleak for cities across the country struggling with more gun violence and killings. In many cities, the level of bloodshed remains far below what was seen a generation ago, but the recent rise in violence has left broken families, shaken communities and anxious residents.
In New York there were 488 killings in 2021 compared to 319 two years earlier, before the pandemic. It is still well below the painful number seen a few decades ago – in 1990 alone the city had more than 2,200 murders – but the increase has left some New Yorkers afraid for the safety of their city.
New York Mayor Eric Adams (D), who campaigned for public safety issues, said during a televised appearance after the subway attack that he had been “in the city when it got out of control” decades earlier.
“That’s not what we’re facing right now,” Adams told MSNBC last weekend. He also described the rise in gun violence as a nationwide problem, not limited to certain cities.
In New York, subway attacks increase fears that the city has become dangerous
The mayor of Savannah, Ga., Van Johnson, said the rise in gun violence in his city and across the country is “unlike anything we’ve ever seen.”
He attributes the phenomenon to the availability of illegal weapons, a lack of maturity in dispute resolution and a critical lack of resources to deal with mental health and substance abuse.
Johnson also said he makes a lot of effort to visit every place where a shooting takes place.
“I want to show that this is not common,” he said. “There should be no such thing as a routine gun violence incident.”
Public mass shootings like Brooklyn’s subway attacks tend to get the most attention, though such vandalism is actually different from how gun violence typically unfolds in America, said April M. Zeoli, an associate professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University.
“Mass shootings are definitely the minority of gun deaths in the United States,” Zeoli said. ‘Single-victim shootings are far more common. Many, many more people die every day, every month, every year in homicides that do not live up to the level of mass shootings, than people who are shot in mass shootings. “
And not all mass killings get equal attention, Zeoli said. The most common mass shootings, she said, are cases in the home, but media and public control tend to focus more on them in public spaces – like cinemas or temples – “because they are more intimidating to many people,” she said. “Anyone can put themselves in this situation.”
Even public control, experts said, appears to have diminished over the years for many shootings. Zeoli said that a few years ago, she got the students to do a project that analyzed the TV news coverage of shootings.
The most important factor in determining the breadth of coverage, she said, “was the number of deaths.”
Despite the intense focus on the shootings that hit strangers in public places, “almost no shootings are random,” noted Daniel Webster, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions. “Yes, a few, but they are incredibly rare. They are the ones who get the most attention because they seem to have no rhyme or reason, like what happened on the Brooklyn subway recently.
“More common are shootings, whether they’re mass shootings or just a single shot, you can often boil it down to something pretty basic,” Webster said. “Complaints and weapons.”
And the number of guns across America has only increased since the pandemic began.
In 2020 and 2021, arms sales rose to unprecedented numbers, according to a Washington Post analysis of federal data on background checks on weapons. This increase has slowed so far this year, with an estimated 17,200 purchased firearms in the first three months of 2022, a decrease from the previous two years.
Investigation of gun violence in 2021
But it followed “historic procurement,” said Webster, who came at “a very uncertain time, a fleeting cultural, political context in which people lack faith in the state’s ability to protect them.”
Webster said that in a place of common gun violence, and where people do not believe the police will keep them safe, they may want weapons for security, provided others already have them.
“You think, yes, a pretty significant percentage of people in this environment are armed,” he said. “You’re on the edge. And you do not want to be the second to reach for your gun.
And it has happened with gloomy frequency, according to both officials and mediators fighting violence.
In Indianapolis, Chief of Police Randal Taylor watched as the increasingly meaningless explanations for the killings spilled in: people who had been shot and killed during a spit across a parking lot or in retaliation for an offensive post on social media. He said it was unlike anything he had seen in his 34-year career in law enforcement.
“When you have people who do not have a criminal history killing for these other reasons, it’s more worrying,” said Taylor, whose city broke its homicide record in 2020 and again last year.
Leonard Jahad, executive director of the Connecticut Violence Intervention Program, said excitement “just seems to be elevated” in recent years, which he attributed to isolation due to the pandemic and the echo chamber of social media.
Young people he works with seek out each other online to make threats and “go to each other in the most disrespectful ways,” Jahad said. “It’s a completely different culture that we’re trying to break.”
Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, an anti-violence activist before entering politics, also said an increasing proportion of the violence in his city appears to stem from interpersonal strife, making it difficult for law enforcement to intervene effectively. Mediators working in the city streets trying to prevent problems from escalating said efforts have become more dangerous as weapons have spread.
Alex Long, who works as a violence breaker for the city-funded Safe Streets program in Baltimore, said he has seen a marked increase in the number of armed and willing to use their weapons over the past seven years.
“The gun is the end of everything, be everything,” Long said. “It’s ‘you step on my shoes, I take my gun. If you look at me wrong, I’m taking my gun.’ ”
Gun violence is basically local, he said Caterina Roman, a criminal law professor at Temple University.
“We can look at the national statistics and say, ‘This may be a trend’ [but] I am of the conviction that in order to truly understand violence and gun violence, we need to look deeper into the individual cities, ”Roman said. “It’s a neighbor problem.”
For some city leaders, the pandemic offers at least one explanation for the rise in violence. As people lost jobs and social connections during the pandemic, support systems withered, and the fuses became shorter.
“There’s more frustration, more stress, more anger in people, more insecurity,” said Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer, a former police chief. “It plays a role.”
Still, while some cities endured record numbers of killings last year, others have seen glimmers of hope. In Boston, Dallas and Omaha, for example, homicides fell last year, according to police data.
Homicide in Columbus, however, reached a record in 2021, prompting Ginther, the mayor, to call gun violence a “public health crisis” this year.
Nine out of 10 homicides in the city last year involved a firearm, he said in an interview, and 80 percent of the victims and perpetrators were African-American men under the age of 40.
But Ginther said the early months of this year have given rise to optimism, with homicides falling significantly compared to 2021, a change he attributes to a new intervention program that focuses on reaching a small group of people who commit a disproportionately large share of violent crimes, as well as new investments in law enforcement.
“We think things are heading in the right direction after some of the worst years ever,” Ginther said. But he also noted that such trends can change quickly.
The availability of weapons and the approach to summer time – when people move outdoors and hold several large gatherings – are recipes for increased violence, experts fear.
In Pittsburgh, Schubert, the police chief, said officials believe a “fight” at the house party that led to shootings between at least two people early Sunday morning.
According to police, more than 100 shots were fired, some inside the house and some outside.
Lee Davis, who has worked in violence prevention programs in Pittsburgh for nearly two decades, knew both teens who were killed and met one through a mentoring program and another in his company. “I’ve been crying for the last two days,” Davis said.
Davis also said that people fighting violence “can do much more if we have more resources” to pay for more abusers, therapists and caseworkers.
“If we keep listening to the situation and just hope and pray that it disappears, we will keep seeing this again and again,” he said.
Nick Keppler of Pittsburgh contributed to this report.