Friday, June 6, 2014

GateHouse: No one immune from random acts of violence

Matthew T. Mangino
GateHouse News Media
June 6, 2014
Twenty-five years ago, Lawrence Sherman, currently the director of the Cambridge Institute of Criminology at Cambridge University and a distinguished university professor at the University of Maryland’s Department of Criminology, told the New York Times that the risk of being killed by a stray bullet “is increasingly a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.’’

If that includes the breakfast table, a bus, picnic or office building, then anyplace can be the wrong place. Last June, in the state of Washington, a stray bullet killed 23-year-old Allyssa Smith during a family picnic. Smith was at her parents’ home for Father’s Day when a stray bullet fired from a rifle rigged like a machine took her life.

Last year, a 14-year-old girl on a New York City bus, D’Asia Robinson, had just left a friend’s birthday party when she was killed by a stray bullet.

Earlier this year, 5-year-old Payton Benson was killed by a stray bullet as she ate breakfast inside her Omaha, Nebraska, home. Police responded to reports of a hail of gunfire around 9:45 a.m. about a block away from Benson’s home. Police found Benson in her home critically wounded.

Last week, Dr. Betty Howard, a Chicago teacher, was killed when she was struck by a stray bullet. Police said Howard was visiting a real estate office around 5:30 p.m. when she was struck by bullets that pierced the building’s wall.

Stray bullets take a senseless toll on neighborhoods. Yet public health officials know little about the phenomenon. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracks accidental shootings, but they do not account for harm caused by stray bullets, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Several years ago a researcher was not satisfied with the lack of information on the scope and magnitude of harm caused by stray bullets. Dr. Garen Wintemute, a professor of emergency medicine at the University of California-Davis, and fellow researchers, using a single year of media reports of shootings from 2008 and 2009, found stray bullets injured or killed 317 people. According to the Post-Dispatch, more than 80 percent of the victims had no idea they were in danger until they were shot, and 40 percent were at home. One in five died, making stray bullets just as lethal as those bullets that strike their intended targets.

This week, Wintemute told NPR that violence is often thought of as disproportionately affecting young men. The victims of stray bullets, however, are incidental to that violence and tend to be proportionate with the general population. He found that more than 30 percent of the victims of stray bullet shootings are children younger than 14. Males and females were affected about equally.

“[It’s] not the age group that we’re used to thinking about, not the gender that we’re used to thinking about when we think about violence,” Wintemute told NPR.

There are a number of ways that stray bullets injure or kill innocent people. Every year with the arrival of hunting season, there are stories of stray bullets causing harm. Even celebratory gunfire can be lethal — shot into the air a bullet must return to the ground. However, 60 percent of the incidents occurred as the result of intentional gunfire.

Sherman’s 25-year-old research noted that those who live in poor neighborhoods, where a significant number of shootings occur, seemed to be at greater risk. In Chicago, outside a school building with “Don’t Shoot” stickers plastered to the walls, the principal, Sherryl Moore-Ollie, recently told the Chicago Tribune when asked about her students’ reaction to violence, “They’ve been desensitized … [t]hey hear shooting every day.”

Unfortunately, some of those bullets go astray, and every one of those students is the potential object of a random act of violence.

Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was recently released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.
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