The end of October saw the total number of gun homicides in 2020 already exceeded the year-end total for each of the past four years, according to The Trace with data tracked by the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive.
In some communities, violence was already soaring when the pandemic prompted statewide lockdowns. Philadelphia, Houston, and Memphis tallied 10 percent more homicides between January and March than in the same period in 2019. The problem was even worse in Milwaukee, where killings doubled.
Rusti Pendleton, a violence intervention worker at Boston Medical Center, saw the costs of this violence at the bedsides of shooting victims, where he urged them to put down their weapons and enlist the help of a caseworker. He worried that the pandemic would inflame the first-quarter homicide increases, and he was right: By July, homicides in Boston had surged 40 percent over the previous year. The interplay was readily apparent at the hospital, where two out of every 10 shooting victims tested positive for COVID-19, forcing Pendleton to keep his distance. “They would be whisked off to another part of the hospital, and for the safety of my own family I gotta choose not to deal with that,” he said.
Similar scenes played out across the country as social-distancing measures handicapped violence intervention groups and shuttered community programs designed to keep young people occupied during the summer months. The pandemic snuffed out “just about every positive source of social connection or mental health outlet available to these communities most at risk for gun violence,” said Lisa Fujie Parks, an associate program director at the Prevention Institute, a national anti-violence nonprofit.
In some cities, the violence has overtaken the pandemic as the chief concern among locals. Ricky Vasquez, a Republican precinct chairman and City Council candidate in Fort Worth, said that, since a mass shooting in May, residents in his neighborhood haven’t felt safe walking to the store. He said their fear is driven less by the risk of contracting coronavirus than of the likelihood they’ll be shot. With homicides reaching into triple digits, Fort Worth has suffered a level of bloodshed not seen since 1995. “The last City Council meeting, we were at something like 87 homicides, and then all of the sudden just recently we found out we’re over 100,” Vasquez said. “People are wondering if they’ll survive.”
Likewise, in Philadelphia, the City Council has called on the mayor to declare gun violence a citywide emergency. City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier proposed the resolution in September. It passed a day after four people were shot — two of them fatally — at a basketball court near Center City.
Gauthier told The Trace that gun violence was not being treated as seriously as the coronavirus, even though both were exacting a disproportionate toll on the city’s Black residents. “I want to see us mobilize on gun violence in the same way that we mobilized on COVID-19,” she said. “All of these young Black people who are dying and getting shot at every day deserve the same level of priority and action.”
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