On any given day, the sound of rapid gunfire shatters the peace of the Columbia Heights neighborhood in northwest Washington, D.C. — a troubling occurrence for those who live in this gentrified community.
“It’s sickening to see all these shootings and the lives impacted by the senseless violence,” said Kevin Grayson, a Washington resident who recently moved from Maryland. “Last month, I heard three exchanges of gunfire in a five-hour span, and several people were wounded,” he told VOA.
The July 22 shootings were on the same day gunfire erupted in the busy 14th Street entertainment district. Two men were wounded in a flurry of gunshots that sent restaurant patrons and pedestrians running for cover.
“The gun violence speaks to the brazenness of the criminals in these communities,” D.C. Metropolitan Police Chief Robert Contee said to neighborhood residents a day after the shooting.
The nation’s capital, like many cities across the U.S., is grappling with rising cases of gun violence since the start of the coronavirus pandemic more than a year and a half ago. The shootings have disproportionately affected African Americans, claiming thousands of lives, destroying families and shaking the sense of security.
“It’s mostly Black-on Black crime,” said Robert, a 22-year-old African American man who didn’t give his last name. He recounted recent shootings over the past several months, claiming most are drug- and gang-related.
“In some cases, bystanders are caught in the crossfire between people trying to kill each other,” he said.
Nationwide, gun-related deaths this year are 14% higher than over the same period in 2020, according to the research group Gun Violence Archive.
“I hear people say all the time they don’t feel safe in the community with so many guns on our streets,” Contee said in testimony before the Washington city council last month.
Homicides in Washington are at a 16-year high. In response, police have beefed up patrols in neighborhoods with high numbers of shootings. Some community leaders believe the increased enforcement has done little to reverse the trend.
The summer of soaring gun violence in Washington captured national headlines after the July 16 shooting death of Nyiah Courtney. The 6-year-old was killed by gunshots from a car as she rode a scooter to her home in Congress Heights with her family. Her mother, father and three others were wounded.
The next day, nearly 6.4 kilometers from Congress Heights, thousands of terrified sports fans scrambled for cover as gunfire erupted outside Nationals Park, Washington’s professional baseball stadium, where three people, including a bystander, were shot and wounded.
Over the past month, Contee has listened to residents’ concerns and is vocal about the problems he sees with the criminal justice system. City officials reported a backlog of more than 10,000 pending cases at the D.C. Superior Court in July.
“The courts are barely open because of the coronavirus, so cases from last year involving violent criminals were not disposed of,” Contee said. “So, those people are still in our neighborhoods.”
Shootings, homicide rates up
While violent crime in the U.S. overall is lower than it was five years ago, shooting and homicide rates are up. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence said that on average, 316 people are shot every day in America, and 106 die. Criminal justice experts believe the escalation is linked to the economic downturn and the large number of gatherings following months of stay-at-home orders due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Police in Chicago have taken nearly 8,000 guns off the streets, but the nation’s third-largest city still has recorded more than 494 homicides and 2,200 shootings this year. More than a dozen people were killed and 125 were shot over the course of several weekends in August.
Gun crimes are affecting Black communities in smaller cities such as Birmingham, Alabama, with 122 homicides last year, the most in 25 years. Nearly 90% of the victims were killed by a gun, and 75% were young Black men, according to a study by the news media website AL.com.
Leaders of Birmingham’s African American community announced in June a $125,000 reward for information leading to arrests in five shootings — $25,000 per case — involving children younger than 10 injured or killed by gunfire since February. Two-year-old Major Turner was fatally wounded while sitting with his mother in their house on February 4.
“The community is fed up with the senseless violence against children,” pastor Thomas Beavers said at a news conference announcing the reward. “We have the power to be the change we want to see in Birmingham.”
Gun violence reduction programs
In July, U.S. President Joe Biden announced new plans to tackle gun violence.
“While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, we know there are some things that work. And the first of those that work is stemming the flow of firearms,” Biden said.
The Justice Department has launched five firearms strike forces to target the illegal flow of weapons across state lines.
The administration is also working with attorneys general from several states and the District of Columbia to hold gun manufacturers and dealers accountable. Biden wants lawmakers to repeal a law that gives gun manufacturers blanket immunity when their products are used to commit crimes.
In local communities, leaders are launching new initiatives. Last month, Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser called for the hiring of more police officers. In February, she adopted a $15 million program called “Building Blocks DC,” which focuses on a public health approach to gun violence prevention and engages people most at risk of becoming a victim or perpetrator of gun crimes.
“We recognize the scourge of gun violence and are committed to reversing these trends and saving lives,” Bowser said in a statement unveiling the program.
In Baltimore, officials last month unveiled a five-year crime reduction plan that aims to reduce gun violence by 15% per year.
“We want to make sure we have the resources to break up groups that are trafficking weapons into Baltimore, where we know 60% of the guns come from another state,” Mayor Brandon Scott said in a July interview with CNN. “We want to get people off the streets that are committing gun violence in our neighborhoods.”