Lethal City, USA

Bal­ti­more’s epi­demic of deadly gun vi­o­lence de­fies easy so­lu­tions

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NATION -

Bal­ti­more isn’t the only U.S. city that has seen a sharp rise in gun vi­o­lence in re­cent years. But it surely is one of the most lethal. As The Sun’s Justin George re­ported in a three-part series sup­ported by Mar­quette Uni­ver­sity’s O’Brien Fel­low­ship in Pub­lic Ser­vice Jour­nal­ism, shoot­ing vic­tims in Bal­ti­more are more likely to die than in al­most any other city. His anal­y­sis fo­cuses on three broad fac­tors to ex­plain the rise in lethal­ity here: the com­mon use of ex­tremely pow­er­ful guns, of­ten with over­sized am­mu­ni­tion clips; vic­tims whose in­juries are beyond the abil­ity of trauma sur­geons to re­pair; and a cul­ture in which violent crim­i­nals in­creas­ingly shoot to kill rather than merely to in­tim­i­date or maim.

We have done what we can about the first two. Mary­land has laws specif­i­cally de­signed to make it more dif­fi­cult for crim­i­nals to ob­tain guns and has banned assault ri­fles and large am­mu­ni­tion clips, though its ef­forts are of lim­ited ef­fec­tive­ness given the in­ac­tion of Congress and the lax gun con­trol laws in other states. And Bal­ti­more has ar­guably the finest trauma care sys­tem in the United States, thanks to decades of pi­o­neer­ing medical ad­vances and con­sis­tent pub­lic sup­port and in­vest­ment.

But the third in­gre­di­ent Mr. George de­scribes, a cul­ture in which chil­dren raised amid vi­o­lence grow up into killers who at­tack with­out con­science, one in which street “rules” to pro­tect the in­no­cent are ig­nored and po­ten­tial wit­nesses are either killed or ter­ri­fied that they and their fam­i­lies will be, re­mains vex­ingly dif­fi­cult to ad­dress. The vi­o­lence seems to be con­ta­gious, spread­ing from per­son to per­son and across neigh­bor­hoods like an in­fec­tious dis­ease.

There are no quick so­lu­tions to a prob­lem whose roots lie in a long his­tory of in­tractable so­cial ills and in­jus­tices — poverty, fail­ing schools, dis­crim­i­na­tion, job­less­ness and an in­sid­i­ous drug trade. Both the shoot­ers and their vic­tims have been trau­ma­tized by their ex­pe­ri­ences, and break­ing the cy­cle of vi­o­lence re­quires at­tend­ing to the un­ad­dressed so­cial, emo­tional and men­tal health is­sues that put them all at risk.

Bal­ti­more has had some no­table suc­cesses in tak­ing a pub­lic-health ap­proach to gun vi­o­lence. The health de­part­ment’s Safe Streets pro­gram em­ploys street savvy out­reach work­ers to spot po­ten­tial con­flicts among neigh­bor­hood youths and adults and en­cour­age them to set­tle their dif­fer­ences with­out re­sort­ing to vi­o­lence. Last year work­ers me­di­ated some 700 dis­putes in the four neigh­bor­hoods where the pro­gram op­er­ates; health of­fi­cials say it de­fused as many as 300 dis­putes that might oth­er­wise have erupted in vi­o­lence. But the ini­tia­tive needs to be ex­panded.

Like­wise, hos­pi­tals that treat gun­shot vic­tims can help in­ter­rupt the cy­cle of vi­o­lence by steer­ing pa­tients into coun­sel­ing that ad­dresses their emo­tional trauma as well as their phys­i­cal wounds. The same prin­ci­ple ap­plies to the city’s schools, which are in a unique po­si­tion to reach out to young peo­ple who wit­ness vi­o­lence or ex­pe­ri­ence it di­rectly, both of which can make them more likely to be­come per­pe­tra­tors or vic­tims them­selves. This year the health de­part­ment was awarded a $5 mil­lion fed­eral grant to ad­dress com­mu­ni­ties that were af­fected by last year’s civil un­rest and an­other $2.3 mil­lion for full-time men­tal health clin­i­cians in schools. New city schools CEO Sonja San­telises has placed the is­sue of stu­dents trau­ma­tized by vi­o­lence at the heart of her agenda.

Bal­ti­more has made some progress to­ward get­ting il­le­gal guns and shoot­ers off the street, though that ef­fort re­mains far from com­plete. A much-touted increase in gun ar­rests has not nec­es­sar­ily trans­lated into con­vic­tions and sen­tences. Wit­nesses re­main re­luc­tant to work with po­lice not just be­cause of in­tim­i­da­tion by crim­i­nals but also be­cause of the poi­soned re­la­tion­ship be­tween the de­part­ment and many com­mu­ni­ties, as doc­u­mented in the Jus­tice De­part­ment’s scathing re­port into polic­ing prac­tices in Bal­ti­more. The po­lice com­mis­sioner and the next mayor must not flinch from the task of restor­ing a re­la­tion­ship of trust be­tween city of­fi­cers and the com­mu­ni­ties they serve.

Gun vi­o­lence is a symp­tom of a vul­ner­a­ble and long-suf­fer­ing body politic, trauma is the in­fec­tious agent that spreads it, and like any ill­ness one has first to di­ag­nose it and then be open about what it is be­fore it can be treated suc­cess­fully. None of it will be easy, but it must be done. Lives de­pend on it.

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