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Deadly surge in U.S. gun violence brings inequities of the pandemic, police violence and firearms laws into sharp focus – The Globe and Mail

A first responder in Chicago leaves the scene where two women were shot this past Christmas morning. Chicago had more homicides in 2021 than any year since 1996.Cheney Orr/Reuters

On the evening of July 7, Miles Thompson left his home in a northern suburb of Chicago to visit his father in the city. An 18-year-old high-school football star, Mr. Thompson led a busy life: He was helping manage a car wash, working toward launching his own trucking company and preparing to start university in Iowa in the fall.

When he reached his father’s house, Mr. Thompson parked in the back driveway. Shortly after, police say, another vehicle rolled up. Someone inside it pulled out a gun and shot Mr. Thompson to death. His body was discovered the next morning by his 10-year-old brother, Jonah.

To his family, Mr. Thompson’s killing is both an unthinkable tragedy and a marker of how widespread the U.S.’s gun violence epidemic has become.

“There was so much cognitive dissonance around it: Miles is not that kid. We are not that family,” Sonya Anderson, Mr. Thompson’s stepmother, remembers thinking in the minutes after she first learned of his shooting. “You can just be minding your own business, living your life, and something terrible can befall you.”

This scourge has plagued the entire U.S., which has seen a dramatic reversal from two decades of relative declines in murders. In 2020, homicides rose 30 per cent countrywide. Analyses by criminologists showed further increases in most large U.S. cities in 2021.

Community leaders, police and scholars are struggling to understand why. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic threw people out of work, shut down social networks and caused immense personal stress. In 2021, the economy was roaring, wages for entry-level jobs were climbing and most pandemic restrictions had been lifted. Yet the violence worsened.

Some blame the lingering effects of the pandemic, which disrupted work and school, and diverted resources from social programs. Others point to the country’s reckoning over police brutality, contending that officers have eased up on enforcement out of fear of committing misconduct. And increased mistrust of police in marginalized communities has made it harder to solve crimes.

Anti-gun graffiti is scrawled on an underpass in Chicago.Cheney Orr/Reuters

To many, the immediate trend is just the heightened outcome of long-running structural problems: the U.S.’s plentiful supply of guns and lax laws controlling them, and pervasive racial and economic inequalities. No other wealthy country, after all, is this bad. The U.S.’s homicide rate – 7.5 per 100,000 people – is nearly four times Canada’s rate, more than six times Britain’s and 25 times that of Japan. Black Americans are 10 times more likely to die from gun homicide than whites.

To Ms. Anderson, president of Thrive Chicago, a group that designs programs to help disadvantaged youth across the city, her stepson’s killing and the wave of shootings of which it is part are wakeup calls to a country that has for too long avoided addressing the root causes of gun violence.

“It shows our fates are deeply intertwined. You can’t quote-unquote outrun this, because it impacts every single one of us,” she says. “All the pandemic did was shine a bright light on the cleavages that already existed in our society.”

Firearm-related homicides

per 100,000 people (2001–2019)

Licensed firearm dealers per 100,000 people*

*Dealers and pawnbrokers in firearms other than destructive devices (includes gunsmiths).


Firearm-related homicides

per 100,000 people (2001–2019)

Licensed firearm dealers per 100,000 people*

*Dealers and pawnbrokers in firearms other than destructive devices (includes gunsmiths).


Firearm-related homicides per 100,000 people (2001–2019)

Licensed firearm dealers per 100,000 people*

*Dealers and pawnbrokers in firearms other than destructive devices (includes gunsmiths).


Firearm-related homicides per 100,000 people (2001–2019)

Licensed firearm dealers per 100,000 people*

*Dealers and pawnbrokers in firearms other than destructive devices (includes gunsmiths).


Firearm-related homicides per 100,000 people (2001–2019)

Licensed firearm dealers per 100,000 people*

*Dealers and pawnbrokers in firearms other than destructive devices (includes gunsmiths).


The pandemic and policing

The front door of city hall in Portland, Ore., is stained with black char after someone lit it on fire.

It’s a visible mark of the lawlessness that has permeated every part of the U.S., including this once sleepy corner of the Pacific Northwest.

The city, best known as a hipster epicentre cradled by forested foothills, certainly isn’t the country’s most violent. But it is one where the rise in gun crime is most apparent.

Shootings are up 55 per cent over 2020, and have more than tripled since 2019. It logged 90 homicides in 2021, its worst-ever tally.

“We have an obligation to keep people safe on a day-to-day basis,” says Ted Wheeler, the city’s mayor.

He blames the shootings on “the chaos, the uncertainty, the fear that’s out there.” COVID-19 “tested all of our safety nets, and they all ripped right through,” he says. Reports of homelessness, domestic violence and mental-health distress have all risen.

Protesters with Black Lives Matter slogans demonstrate against racial inequality in Portland.Caitlin Ochs/Reuters

The city has also been a flashpoint in the battle over police funding.

In 2020, after the police murder of George Floyd ignited the largest national racial-justice protests since the Civil Rights movement – including months of demonstrations in Portland’s central square – the city cut its police budget by US$15-million. The local district attorney, Mike Schmidt, moved to dismiss low-level charges against anti-racism protesters, drawing a rebuke from then-president Donald Trump, who tagged Mr. Schmidt as a member of the “radical left.”

Now, the city has reversed course. It has put US$5.2-million more into the police budget. Mr. Schmidt is hiring more prosecutors to handle the rash of gun violence.

“Where in a typical year a prosecutor would get sent out to the scene once or twice in the middle of the night during the year, it’s now happening once or twice a month,” he says.

Mr. Schmidt also argues for a stronger police response to seize illegal guns, pointing to ballistics testing that shows cases in which a single gun was used in a half-dozen or more shootings.

“If we can intercept a would-be shooter and get them off the streets, get those guns off the streets, we can, to some extent, prevent some future gun crimes,” he says.

Portland police advance on protesters this past November after the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict in Wisconsin.John Rudoff/Reuters

Portland’s police department, meanwhile, is dismissive of the idea that the pandemic is causing the rise in violence. Instead, officers argue they just need to hire more cops. An analysis by The Oregonian newspaper found that Portland police are at their lowest staffing levels in three decades.

“The short-term problem has been a lack of resources and personnel,” says Sergeant Kevin Allen, a police spokesman, who cited a decision in 2020 to disband a specialized gun violence team. He says people “are much more emboldened to carry guns. They know it’s less likely they’re going to get stopped.”

Lamar Winston, who runs an inner-city basketball program, says the lack of law enforcement has seen people taking matters into their own hands. “The money was defunded for them. There’s no cops. We policing ourselves. So it’s every man for themselves,” he says.

In Chicago, there is scant evidence that simply flooding the streets with police is going to solve anything. The city has already pursued this approach for decades: It has the second-highest number of police officers per capita among major U.S. cities, behind only Washington.

But these large numbers of cops have not stopped the city from becoming one of the most violent in the country. In 2021, Chicago had 797 homicides, compared with 485 in New York City, which has more than three times the population.

“If arresting people were the solution, it would have worked by now. We’ve already tried that,” says Curtis Amir Toler, director of outreach at Chicago Create Real Economic Destiny (CRED), a group working to end gun violence by helping men in marginalized communities find work in the legal economy.

A community member watches police at the scene of a deadly shooting in Chicago this past Dec. 26.Cheney Orr/Reuters

Sergeant Jermaine West, a community policing officer who lives and works in North Lawndale, a low-income neighbourhood on Chicago’s west side, agrees there must be more funding for social programs to combat crime. “Officers are getting trained to respond to youth in crisis, deal with mental health. Why am I responding to that? Other people have spent years going to school for this. It makes no sense,” he says.

Sgt. West lays the blame for the rise in violence squarely on the pandemic.

Shutting down schools, recreation activities and anti-violence programs caused at-risk youth to get involved with gangs, he says. Now that these things have started back up, outreach workers and teachers are playing catch-up trying to get boys and young men to turn away from violence.

But he argues the necessary social spending shouldn’t be taken out of the police budget.

“One of the richest cities in the richest country in the world is being told ‘You have to choose between safety and jobs,’ and I beg to differ that that’s a choice that has to be made,” he says.

“If you pull the police out now, there’s going to be bloodshed, and who’s going to suffer from that? It’s going to be people living in these Black and brown communities.”

A memorial in Minneapolis honours George Floyd, who was murdered by a police officer.Julio Cortez/The Associated Press

Shani Buggs, a gun violence expert at the University of California Davis, says researchers are still gathering data and have not reached definitive conclusions explaining the spike in violence these past two years. But she said there is evidence police brutality played a role.

Gun violence was already rising before Mr. Floyd was murdered, for instance, but spiked further in the two months after his killing. The reason, Prof. Buggs says, is likely a combination of police holding back and an increased mistrust of officers by communities subject to brutality. Researchers have found similar correlations following previous high-profile instances, such as the killing of Michael Brown, a Black teenager shot by police in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014.

“Community co-operation, willingness to engage with police, goes down. We have also seen evidence that when these incidents happen, police engage the community less. If people believe there is no accountability for what’s being done to them and their families, people will take matters into their own hands,” she says.

But she draws a distinction between these effects and the numbers of police. “High rates of police aren’t necessarily stopping the violence,” she says. “The conversation around defunding the police causing the violence, that’s a false narrative. There is no research or data to bear that out.”

Pictures of gun-violence victims decorate a Christmas tree outside Chicago’s St. Sabina Church.Cheney Orr/Reuters

Guns and opportunity gaps

When Tabare Marshall was involved in the world of gangs in Chicago’s South Side, he felt it was necessary to carry a gun. Shot in the leg at the age of 16, having a firearm of his own seemed the best way to protect himself.

“You just chill and try to get some money, and there could be a guy getting shot. It’s dangerous out there,” says Mr. Marshall, now 23, at a recreation centre on a cold weekday morning. “Guns are easy to come across.”

The U.S. is by far the most heavily armed country in the world. It has an estimated 400 million civilian guns in circulation. With a population of about 330 million, that means there are more guns in the country than people. Canada, by comparison, has about 13 million guns for a population of 38 million. Toronto, which is slightly more populous than Chicago, had 404 total shootings in 2021. The Windy City had 3,516.

And gun purchases in the U.S. have skyrocketed since the start of the pandemic. One week in March, 2020, saw more than one million federal background checks, a required step for most gun buyers. It was the highest number since tracking began in 1998, only to be beaten by a week in April, 2021, with 1.2 million checks.

While Illinois has relatively tight gun-control laws, several nearby states do not. In Ohio, for instance, it is possible to buy a firearm at a gun show without a federal background check. Criminals use frontmen to buy guns legally, then resell them on the black market.

Mr. Toler, the anti-violence outreach worker, says guns are far more ubiquitous than when he was leading a street gang decades ago. Higher-calibre weapons are also more readily available, and people modify their pistols with switches that can turn semi-automatics into fully automatics. “We’re seeing guns and ammunition that I haven’t seen in my lifetime,” he says at a Chicago CRED outreach centre in a strip plaza on the South Side. “The people using them are getting a lot younger. They haven’t matured to the age to understand that maybe they have something to lose.”

The gunfire tracks Chicago’s vast and visible inequalities. More than half of all shootings happen in just 15 of the city’s 77 neighbourhoods, majority-Black areas concentrated on the city’s south and west sides. While downtown is famous for its neo-Gothic architecture and picturesque waterfront, lower-income parts of the city are marked by rows of boarded up stores and few economic opportunities.

“With these guys being so young, the violence and the poverty is all that they know. Some guys have never seen the skyline downtown,” says Terrance Henderson, a 38-year-old Chicago CRED outreach worker. “They say ‘I’ve never been able to walk down the street without my gun.’ ”

A Chicago resident adjusts the blinds of a window recently riddled with bullets.Cheney Orr/Reuters

For his part, Mr. Marshall, who associated with Chicago gangs as a teen, was ultimately caught with his gun by police. While serving a sentence of house arrest last year, he joined READI Chicago, a program that provides a mix of cognitive behavioural therapy and job training for people trying to escape violence. Mr. Marshall is soon starting courses in forklift driving and culinary arts.

There is evidence that these sorts of programs work. An evaluation of READI found an 80-per-cent drop in shooting and homicide arrests for participants. The problem, the programs’ leaders say, is that there isn’t enough of it. “We need to be able to have more staff, to be more in the community to get people out,” says Toronto Brooks, 56, a READI outreach worker.

CRED workers also arrive on scene after a shooting, in hopes of speaking with people involved to broker truces and prevent retaliation. Under one program, they place peacekeepers at shooting hot spots during key times; since this project began four years ago, 90 per cent of the hot spots have experienced no shootings when the peacekeepers are present.

In Portland, Lionel Irving, a former gang member, takes a similar approach. When someone has been shot, there is a high chance “that a new shooter is created” among witnesses or friends of the victim. So he tries to find people potentially affected and provide counsel that can break the cycle.

Mr. Irving stands at one of the many intersections around the city where clusters of flowers mark memorials to those killed. Rain-spotted roses drape over pictures of Danae Williams, a 25-year-old who worked with people with disabilities. She was shot while driving away from a restaurant. A black heart is scrawled onto a piece of paper in marker, next to the dates that mark Ms. Williams’s life: 12-8-95 to 5-13-21.

“She was a very bright young lady, too,” Mr. Irving says. “When her story came out, it was like, man, we’re losing our best and brightest kids.”

The sense of anger is palpable, says Arthur Hayes Jr., a Portland gang member who now eschews violence. “I’ve heard numerous kids saying ‘I’m not fighting.’ That means we’re shooting. We’re not fighting,” he says.

Police tape surrounds a shooting scene in Portland this past June.Mark Graves/The Oregonian via AP

Anti-violence advocate Rev. J.W. Matt Hennessee was just starting Bible study at his desk in Portland’s Vancouver Avenue Baptist Church one evening in May when he got a call telling him his stepson, Jalon Yoakum, 33, had been gunned down. Mr. Yoakum, a father of two boys, was killed at 6 p.m. in a parking lot in Portland’s northeast, where he had stopped for pizza.

As in so many of these cases, police have disclosed no suspects and made no arrests. This has left Mr. Hennessee searching for answers close to home. As a pastor, he has seen a notable increase in the number of parishioners who have come to him in 2021 asking for help. “Many people are having mental-health crises,” he says. “I’ve never seen it as much as I see it now.”

Answers have been similarly elusive in the shooting death of Miles Thompson, the 18-year-old killed in Chicago. Police have made no arrests and named no suspects. But from her work with disadvantaged young people, Ms. Anderson knows that whoever did this is likely to themselves be at risk of getting shot.

And reaching people like them is exactly what she aims to do through her work at Thrive Chicago. It takes resources and patience, she says, but the only way out of this epidemic of violence is fixing the problems that cause people to take up arms in the first place. The money currently spent on these sorts of programs pales compared with that poured into policing, courts and prisons.

“As a nation, we have to understand that we’re going to pay for it one way or the other. Either we’re going to invest on the front end, or we’re going to pay on the back end,” she says. “We have to give folks options to lead better lives. Anything else and we’re just tinkering around the edges.”

Gun laws in Canada: More from The Decibel

This past December, for the 32nd anniversary of Montreal’s École Polytechnique massacre, The Globe and Mail’s Patrick White took stock of which guns are legal in Canada and how our laws compare to those in the United States. Subscribe for more episodes.