In the 91⁄2 weeks from Jan. 16 to March 23, last Wednesday, there were 19 separate shootings in the city in which four people were killed and 21 other victims — mostly teenagers and young men in their 20s — suffered wounds. Most of these shootings occurred in urban neighborhoods where violence and gun shots are not uncommon. And then there was the flash-mob last Saturday night in Coolidge Park, the city’s prized and heavily visited riverfront park, that quickly produced a gang-related brawl and random gunshots which, fortunately, wounded no one.
The string of shootings became most intensive in March. Chattanooga Police Department records reported shootings occurred on March 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 12 (2), 14, 15 (2), 16, 21 and 23. In all, the March string included 13 shootings in 19 days involving 16 victims.
This is not just a rash of shootings; it’s a virtual epidemic. Indeed, it suggests the larger reason that Chattanooga was cited as one of “20 cities you don’t want to live in” on an CNBC newscast this week: A crime rate that is more than double the national average after nearly a one-third reduction over the last decade.
The March shootings alone, involving so many young shooters and young victims, beg the attention of city leaders. They must, finally, engage seriously in the work of suppressing crime, particularly by gun-carrying youths who seem to be shooting rival gang members.
This work will be arduous, difficult, expensive, resource-intensive and time-consuming. It won’t be accomplished quickly, nor is it likely to be entirely successful even with the best efforts. But the downside is worse. If the effort is not pursued intensively, the city’s gang problem (there are approximately a dozen gangs) is bound to worsen. The societal circumstances that fuel street crime, especially gang-related crime, only fester and grow if left unattended.
A spreading gangland
Just a surface review of federal Justice Department studies on youth gangs confirms that. A 2001 report from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention noted that gangs had spread from just 19 states in the 1970s to all 50 states and Puerto Rico by the 1990s. By the end of the 1990s, gangs were found in 3,700 communities, totaled more than 1 million members and committed over 600,000 crimes.
While the South ranked lowest in gangs in the 1970s, it ranked second by the 1990s. Across the country, all of the approximately 200 cities with populations of more than 100,000 reported gang problems by 1998.
Surely the problem has worsened in the last decade. In Chattanooga, there is no room for doubt about that.
The causal factors, long apparent, clearly line up with Justice Department reports. As one report puts it, they typically include “poverty and social disorganzation ... institutional racism, cultural misadaptation, deficiencies in social policy and the availability of criminal opportunities.” The social policy jargon is easy to decipher, and plain to see in Chattanooga’s poorer neighborhoods: poverty, fractured families, the absence of fathers, disinterest in school, joblessness, a lack of constructive community activities for young people, and an environment tainted by drugs, crime and misadventure.
Disadvantaged youth from impoverished homes are ready targets for gangs, which lure new members into their web by offering group identity and group protection. And once involved, studies show, members are far more likely than non-members to engage in violent and drug-related crimes.
Efforts to suppress youth crime are almost rote by now. One Justice Department report emphasizes the five basic strategies used to address youth gangs: “Neighborhood mobilization, social intervention, provision for social and economic opportunities, gang suppression and incarceration, and an organizational development strategy.” None of this is new, but the city’s police gang unit is understaffed, and the community has not been adequately engaged.
The veterans’ challenge
When veteran Chattanooga police officers Napoleon Williams and Frank Williams called for a meeting Friday with city leaders and the community’s black leaders to address the wave of violence, they invoked the first two elements of the suppression formula by calling for curfews for minors and more parental control over their kids.
That’s a good place to start, but it will take deep commitment to an immense, long-term effort to organize and engage parents, to deliver constructive after-school community programs, to steer at-risk youth away from gangs, and to break up, reform or incarcerate gang leaders.
The gun show loophole
It also would take a regional or national movement to tighten gun laws to help reduce the underground sewer of gun-running to young criminals. The first step on this improbable path would be to close the notorious gun-show loophole, which allows individuals to sell guns to other individuals in gun shows without background checks, registration or record keeping. The wide-open gun market that this shameful loophole provides enables anyone 18 or over to walk into gun shows and buy an arsenal of weapons that can easily be resold on the street without a trace.
Given the current propensity of state lawmakers to pander on and pass radical new gun-rights pushed by the NRA in state legislatures around the country, Southern state lawmakers are not likely to close the gun-show loophole on a state-by-state basis.
Easy guns, harder work
With easy access to guns a given, stemming gun violence will be infinitely harder. But the effort must start somewhere. The best place to start here is for Mayor Littlefield to heal his rift with the city’s police department and unify resources to make crime suppression and neighborhood initiatives a major focus, and not just a talking point. The County Commission, which routinely neglects both its municipal constituents and schools, could help by ending its war with the school board and its underfunding of the county school system to facilitate more after-school programs in inner-city schools.
Churches, parents, neighborhood and civic organizations must play a role, too. Suppressing youth crime and making poorer neighborhoods safer is as much about mentoring, caring about and guiding young people as it is about laying blame on others. Everyone here has a stake in the outcome, and role to play.