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The increase in shootings and murders since the pandemic began has become the norm. : NPR

Bullet holes from an earlier shooting are still visible in a store window at the scene of a fatal overnight shooting on South Street in Philadelphia on June 5, 2022.

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Bullet holes from an earlier shooting are still visible in a store window at the scene of a fatal overnight shooting on South Street in Philadelphia on June 5, 2022.

Michael Perez/AP

SEATTLE — When the US murder rate. jumped almost 30% In 2020, experts expected it to be a temporary problem, a fleeting symptom of the pressures of the pandemic and civil unrest.

“I lost a couple of people around that time to gun violence,” says LaMaria Pope, who works for a Seattle-area youth outreach program called “Choose 180.”

Three summers later, he says the violence persists and young people are more likely to be armed with a gun.

“Sixteen and 17, 18 and up, they only feel safe if they have one. It’s becoming a jacket, they can’t leave home without one,” she says.

Hopes for a rapid decline in the surge in pandemic homicides are fading. National statistics for 2022 are not yet available, but you can get a sneak peek of an informal year-to-date count of murders in major cities compiled by data analyst Jeff Asher. The total count in those cities is down a little more than last year, but it’s still well above pre-pandemic levels. And in 40% of the cities listed, homicides are trending upwards.

Some of the worst trouble spots are cities like Philadelphia other Baltimorewhere homicides to date rival the high numbers of 2020 and 2021.

In Portland, Oregon, the mayor has declared in “emergency” by gun violence, as the city struggles to recover from an annual murder count that soared to 88 in 2021, from 36 in 2019.

Even some smaller cities, like Little Rock, Ark., are in danger of eclipsing last year’s murder figures.

“This is definitely not the 90s”

But it is not just that the numbers remain high. The nature of gun violence itself has changed, according to those who closely watch these crimes.

“This is definitely not the ’90s we’re seeing,” says Elyne Vaught, a prosecutor in King County, Washington. It’s part of a program called “shots,” which counts and categorizes illegal shootings in a county that includes Seattle. The program seeks to identify people at risk of becoming involved in violence and intervene by offering social services provided by non-profit organizations.

“The 1990s were more gang oriented, there were much more organized and targeted shootings,” says Vaught. “Today, it’s minor offenses, minor conflicts, reckless shootings.”

Vaught says he can see the “increase in reckless-type shootings” in the county’s statistics, where the the number of shots has more than doubled, compared to the same period in 2019and with more shots per victim.

Police across the country have noticed this trend. a new report of the Association of Chiefs of Major Cities points to “incidents of individuals shooting indiscriminately into large crowds while unloading massive amounts of ammunition,” such as the April mass shooting in downtown Sacramento.

Bosses point to the availability of extended ammo magazines, as well as the growing popularity of “auto seek” switches, small aftermarket devices that convert semi-automatic Glock pistols into illegal automatics, capable of firing bullets. (Similar accessories also exist for AR-15-style rifles, but police are more concerned with pistols, which are much more often used in crime.)

Post-pandemic shooting

anecdotally, gunshots have become a more common sound in many urban and suburban areas. Jimmy Hung, deputy chief of the juvenile division for the King County District Attorney’s Office, says he has noticed the change.


LaMaria Pope, who runs the Choose 180 youth outreach program’s school-based diversion program in King County, Washington, says that since 2020, more young people feel the need to carry a gun.

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LaMaria Pope, who runs the Choose 180 youth outreach program’s school-based diversion program in King County, Washington, says that since 2020, more young people feel the need to carry a gun.

Martin Kaste/NPR

“I live in West Seattle and I never felt like leaving my house, I was in danger of getting shot, I still don’t,” says Hung. “But having lived there for almost 20 years, I can say with confidence that when I sleep at night and have the window open, I certainly hear more gunshots today than when I first moved into the neighborhood.”

Hung wonders if those shootings are related to an increase in “demonstrative” use of guns by young people.

A 16-year-old we call “G” remembers being at a party in the same neighborhood, West Seattle, and seeing exactly that. (We hide his name, given his age and the subject).

“All we hear is ‘pop-pop-pop,'” he says, describing the incident.

He says it started with a dispute between two groups of young men, and took an ominous turn when some came back with backpacks in front of them, with a hand hidden inside.

“That usually only means two things,” he says. “Or they’re having a hard time finding something. Or it’s usually just them holding a gun, ready to pull it out and shoot.”

Gun violence often starts online

“G” says he doesn’t have a gun and most of the guns he sees in the hands of acquaintances are on social media.

“Mostly Snapchat,” he says. “[The videos are] They usually smoke in a car and then hold a gun and turn on the laser sight. I’m just saying, ‘Hey, I got this, don’t mess with me. Be afraid of me, basically. “

When the weapons come to light in person, he says it’s often after online warnings. For example, someone will post the video of a fist fight, which in turn will cause others to vow to avenge the loser.

“One of the friends might say, ‘Oh, I’m going to slide for you. I’m going to slide real fast with a pole on me,'” says G, where “pole” is slang for gun.

“That usually means, ‘Hey, we don’t care that you lost, but we’re going to do the deed,'” he says.

Temple University criminologist Jason Gravel, who studies how young people acquire and use guns, says the role of social media may be the biggest change in recent years.

“It might look like a random shooting in the street, but if it was preceded by a bunch of verbal threats online or on social media, you don’t see the first part of the conflict, you just see the end result,” Gravel said. he says.

More guns, more shooting?

On the “Choose 180” show in suburban Seattle, Lemaria Pope believes the year-long shutdown of face-to-face education in the region led to many children discovering guns.

“The children found their parents’ weapons, because they were at home, without school, without work. I definitely think during that pandemic, it just opened a window,” says Pope.

There may be more weapons for the kids to find. Firearms dealers reported record sales during the pandemic, and a recent article in Annals of Internal Medicine estimates that 2.9% of American adults became new gun owners. By extension, the authors estimate that 5 million children were “recently exposed” to firearms in their homes.

At the DA’s office, Hung believes irresponsible gun owners are part of the problem.

“I don’t think we’ve emphasized or prioritized safe gun storage or responsible gun ownership enough,” he says. “And so kids get access to guns, either through theft or people misplacing them and they just fall into the wrong hands.”

Less risk of getting caught

Others reject this explanation for the rise in gun violence, saying that people who want guns have always found ways to get them.

Anthony Branch, 26, got into trouble for carrying a gun as a teenager. Observing the gun culture in his neighborhood, he believes more minors and criminals now carry guns illegally for one simple reason: “Defund the police,” as he puts it.


Memorial established by friends and family of Jashawna Hollingsworth, who was shot to death outside a shopping center in South Seattle in late 2021. The murder remains unsolved.

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Memorial established by friends and family of Jashawna Hollingsworth, who was shot to death outside a shopping center in South Seattle in late 2021. The murder remains unsolved.

Martin Kaste/NPR

“They’re just going to look at priorities,” he says of the Seattle Police Department, which lost hundreds of officers in the protests that followed the 2020 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

At the same time, he acknowledges that violence itself can also be a decisive factor.

“What are you going to do when you win the fight and someone shoots you? Or do you have a fight so bad you lose the fight and still get shot?” hey asks “So that’s why you have all these youngsters, and also the older cats, who want to carry so much. Because of the uncertainty.”

Criminologist Gravel says society should take seriously the fact that people in certain communities feel so insecure that they want to carry guns.

“When you look at the rates of violence, if you lived in that community, I don’t know if I would blame you if you wanted to carry a gun to protect yourself,” he says. “It’s not entirely unreasonable to do so, even if it puts them at greater risk.”

As for the question of whether pandemic-era violence is here to stay, Gravel says the jury is still out.

“There’s a lot of research that suggests violence works like a contagion,” he says. “It will take a while for the chain of conflicts that started in 2020 to end, and it may never end! It may take a while for it to go away on its own if we don’t step in and try to stop these conflicts sooner.” They pass.”


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