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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘We can’t endure this’: Surge in US shootings shows no sign of easing

Store employee Hayden Kiger helps a shopper from behind the counter at McBride’s Gun Store in Austin, Texas, on May 27, 2021.

By Tim Arango and Troy Closson

On Friday night in Louisiana, a 7-month-old baby was shot in the head, caught in the crossfire during a drive-by shooting. In Norfolk, Virginia, an argument early Saturday over a spilled drink escalated into gunfire outside a pizzeria, killing two people, including a young reporter for the local newspaper.

Later that same day in the Arkansas farming town of Dumas, an annual car show and community event to promote nonviolence became a bloody crime scene after a gunfight broke out, killing one and injuring more than two dozen people, including several children.

And in Miami Beach, where spring break revelers have descended, officials this week declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew after a pair of weekend shootings.

All told, in a single weekend when the calendar turned to spring, there were at least nine mass shooting events — defined by at least four people shot — across the country, as well as many more with fewer victims. It was an ominous harbinger for the warmer summer months ahead, which is typically America’s most violent time.

“We can’t endure this anymore, we just simply can’t,” said Dan Gelber, mayor of Miami Beach, in announcing the curfew. “This isn’t your father’s, your mother’s spring break. This is something totally different.”

The surge in gun violence in the United States that began in 2020 as the pandemic set in and continued through a summer of unrest following the murder of George Floyd shows no sign of easing. Homicides were up 30% that year, the largest annual recorded increase.

While in most places gun violence has not reached the record levels of the 1990s, and other types of crime have remained low during the pandemic, the continued drumbeat of shootings has forced officials like those in Miami Beach to take extraordinary measures at a time when gun ownership has soared, and as some states have moved to pass laws to allow easier access to firearms.

In New York City, many neighborhoods where shootings have long been part of the fabric of daily life — largely lower-income with predominantly Black and Latino residents — bear the brunt of the pandemic’s sustained spike in gun violence. Last weekend, 29 people were shot, including two patrons at a bar in Queens; a man on a subway platform in Brooklyn; and a Jamaican immigrant who was killed after an argument in the Bronx.

Mayor Eric Adams, who took office at the start of the year after campaigning on a message of public safety, has focused on the prevalence of firearms on city streets, attempting to curtail their spread through legislative and policing changes. He has repeatedly asked the courts and state lawmakers to treat weapon offenses with harsher penalties, calling for decreasing the minimum age that someone can be charged as an adult in certain situations and for revising the state’s 2020 bail reform laws.

“I say this over and over again,” Adams said at a news conference Monday, “we need help from Washington, we need help on the state level. We need help. But with or without that help, we’re going to make our city a safe city.”

Adams, a former police captain, also played a crucial role in the reinstatement of a specialized NYPD unit that focuses on gun arrests. The unit was disbanded in 2020 amid citywide protests following the murder of Floyd. Officers in the unit last week began patrolling to recover weapons in about 25 areas of the city where shootings are particularly high.

Around the country, gun purchases, which surged in 2020, have begun to level off, at least when measured by the number of federal background checks, a proximate measure of Americans’ gun-buying habits. After setting records during the pandemic — in a single week in March 2021 the FBI reported more than 1.2 million background checks, the highest ever — figures have largely returned to pre-pandemic levels.

Still, researchers estimate that there are at least 15 million more guns in circulation in the country than there would have been had there not been such a large increase in purchasing during the pandemic.

Garen J. Wintemute, who researches gun violence at the University of California, Davis, said that while he was pleased to see the apparent reversal in the surge of gun purchases, “we have no choice but to live through the aftermath, whatever it is going to be. We’re doing that now.”

Criminologists and researchers say no single cause explains the rise in gun violence, but they point to a confluence of traumatic events, from the economic and social disruptions of the pandemic to the unrest of 2020, as well as the accompanying surge in gun ownership.

Wintemute said he worries that Americans increasingly see those they disagree with as the enemy.

“We have lowered the bar, the threshold of insult or affront or whatever, that’s necessary for violence to seem legitimate,” he said.

The rise in shootings comes as some Republican lawmakers in red states move to pass more permissive gun laws.

On Monday, Eric Holcomb, the Republican governor of Indiana, signed a bill that will allow people to carry handguns without first securing a permit. Earlier this year, Ohio and Alabama also passed so-called “constitutional carry” laws. Last year, five other states — Iowa, Texas, Utah, Tennessee and Montana — approved similar laws.

Supporters of the new laws have framed them as necessary to allow citizens to defend themselves at a time of rising gun violence, and when there is at least the perception that police in some communities have been less visible following the protests of 2020.

“We are at a time right now when police feel handcuffed, citizens don’t know where they can turn for help and this just gives us a fighting chance,” Rob Sexton, the legislative affairs director for the Buckeye Firearms Association, which lobbied for the new law in Ohio, recently told the Statehouse News Bureau.

Still, some in law enforcement object to the new laws, arguing that they will put officers at risk.

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