We must do something to stem this wanton bloodshed

By Roger Chesley

(VM) – Please make them stop.

I’m talking about the wanton, reckless firearm slayings that happen too often in Virginia and around the country. The victims and killers are disproportionately Black men.

This time, an African American woman, Sierra Jenkins, was caught up in the maelstrom and shot dead. The reporter for The Virginian-Pilot had just turned 25 and gotten her first apartment.

Jenkins was caught in the crossfire as she was leaving a Norfolk restaurant-bar early Saturday. The hail of bullets also killed one man, a local semi-pro football player, and wounded three other men.

The most infuriating detail? “It appears as though there was a disagreement within the restaurant over a spilled drink,” Norfolk Police Chief Larry Boone said in a press briefing Tuesday.

That’s it. In my 40 years in the news business, I’ve reported on lots of nonsense leading to shootings: drug and gang beefs; ephemeral feelings of “disrespect”; battles over romantic partners; thefts of clothes.

“Spilled drink” is up there for the worst, most needless excuse I’ve ever heard of. How in the hell did that justify five people being shot, and two families now planning funerals?

Sierra Jenkins, a reporter for the Virginian-Pilot, was killed in a shooting in Norfolk over the weekend. (Studio 110 Photography via The Virginian-Pilot)

Jenkins started at The Pilot in late 2020, a couple of years after I’d left. Several national outlets, including The Washington Post, USA Today, The Grio and NBC News, covered her slaying, perhaps since she was a journalist.

The incident in Norfolk was just one of several in Hampton Roads last weekend that left at least four people dead and 11 wounded. Richmond saw five shootings – with two people killed – in 27 hours early this week.

I’m weary. I wonder what can end this needless bloodshed. Activists, police officials and parents have been on a similar quest for decades.

“Violent crime is a complex phenomenon, and there is no easy ‘fix’ or solution,” Matthew B. Ezzell, professor of sociology at James Madison University, told me by email Wednesday.

He added that researchers do focus on “the number and ease of access to guns, in addition to the broader context of political and social turmoil and polarization that has marked our society over the last several years.

“…  We also have to think about broader efforts to address and reduce social and political inequality.”

To me, based on the data, news reporting and other observations, it seems a three-pronged approach is necessary if this nation will ever significantly lower firearm deaths:

  • Use the research on guns, mayhem and intervention that is widely available; more than 1,400 violence prevention studies have already been done.
  • Do better at stopping guns from getting into the hands of criminals and would-be criminals. More than 73 percent of the homicides for which the FBI received weapons data in 2019 involved firearms, the agency reported. Handguns comprised 62 percent of the firearms used in murders and nonnegligent manslaughters in 2019.
  • Instill into young men – overwhelmingly African American – a respect for life and a determination not to use guns to settle arguments. (Why so many believe America devalues them is a discussion for another day. Many young Black men, though, can’t envision a productive or equitable future.)

All of these goals are easier said than done. They’re also politically tough to accomplish, because conservatives generally want tough-on-crime regulations without restricting guns. Liberals tend to favor more social services targeted to communities plagued by gunfire, with additional gun-control laws.

This philosophical struggle is playing out in the state capital.

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, sponsored legislation to establish a state Center for Firearm Violence Intervention and Prevention. It would be the commonwealth’s primary resource for research and best practices on the issue. Supporters consider it a holistic approach to reducing crime.

Republicans, including Attorney General Jason Miyares and House Speaker Todd Gilbert, of Shenandoah, support a version of what was known as Operation Ceasefire in Boston. As my colleague Graham Moomaw wrote last month, the program tries to ” identify and divert those most at risk of shooting someone or being shot, often young men of color in high-poverty neighborhoods.” It also involves police and community partners offering resources to people trying to leave gangs, but threatening stiff consequences for future crimes.

Operation Ceasefire and similar models, called group violence intervention programs, have had success in cities like Boston. Yet it became embroiled in turf and bureaucratic battles there, according to reports. There also has to be buy-in from elected officials to stick with the program, even if the gains are minor at first.

The varying approaches are part of the current budget battle. The General Assembly’s main session adjourned without a resolution, so lawmakers must still find one. Can the two threads be knitted together, or would that be unworkable?

It’s noteworthy that leading Republicans continue to be steadfast in pushing gun rights legislation, not gun control. Given their base, that’s understandable. Yet it’s also perplexing, because of the carnage.

You wouldn’t tell someone obese or overweight that he doesn’t have to worry about how much he eats. Similarly, how can you seriously confront gun violence unless the ease of getting a gun isn’t part of the discussion?

As Norfolk Mayor Kenny Alexander noted after Saturday’s shootings: “There are more guns in America than there are people.” That’s a sad truism. A nation of nearly 333 million people has more than 400 million firearms, according to various organizations and reports.

Virginia was also part of a nationwide trend in which homicides skyrocketed. Preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention late last year suggested “the homicide rate for the United States rose 30 percent between 2019 and 2020,” CNN reported. “It is the highest increase recorded in modern history.”

This means doing nothing is unacceptable. Politicos and community leaders need to compromise on their talking points and create something that works for Virginia.

None of that will bring back Sierra Jenkins, who was killed at such a young age. We can honor her by overhauling our impotent response to gun violence.

 

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