The recent rash of shootings here -- several in April and May, 11 in June, and two already this month -- understandably stir concern that gun violence is not only out of control, but that it is becoming normative behavior for urban gang members that the police seem ill-equipped to thwart. That is perhaps most apparent in the troubling number of young teenagers involved.
The two most recent shootings, for example, both involved 15-year-olds, and possibly gangs, or personal disputes with gang members. In the latest incident, a 15-year-old boy was shot in the chest and critically wounded at 2 a.m. on July 5 in a parking lot in the 300 block of Walnut Street. He was among a group of youths in the parking lot when the shooter opened fire from a car that had circled the group.
The second youth was shot and killed by a Chattanooga Housing Authority policeman on July 1 when he allegedly turned in a side-stance to fire his pistol at the officer, police said. The officer reportedly was chasing him and another youth across East Lake Courts, a housing project off Fourth Avenue, after hearing shots fired. A HA surveillance camera, police said, showed that the victim had just fired at a black During car before turning to run across the housing project grounds.
Earlier shootings in June involved apparent score settling by gang members. One shooting, off Bonny Oaks Drive, resulted in a stray bullet shattering a window in an adjacent residence and lodging in the wall a foot above the bed of a teenage girl.
Police, prosecutors and community officials and activists are well aware of the gun violence and deeply concerned about the impact. Prosecutors meet regularly with city police officers who track gang violence in a continuing effort to hone strategies to inhibit violence.
Still, there is a prevailing and reasonable sentiment among some that any solution to gun violence requires a strategy far broader than law enforcement activities alone, particularly with regard to gang-related issues and attitudes. "Why," asks one official rhetorically, "would a kid join a gang when he knows he is going to end up either dead or in jail?"
His question gets to the core of the issue. Youngsters who grow up in poverty and on tough streets are too often reared in a void without credible father figures, effective parental control or strong community institutions to guide them. Such at-risk youth may be easily caught up in circumstances that make them feel forced to join a gang for mutual protection. Then they may feel compelled to participate in, yet inured to, the hazards of violence, drugs and guns.
It's a potent and lethal combination that leads to turf protection, gang-related violence, and extreme sensitivity to the seeming weakness of succumbing to slights and disrespect. At that point, shooting someone in response to being disused, or disrespected, is more plausible than improbable.
Gun use is aggravated, as well, by easy access to guns, and the macho image of acquiring and using sophisticated weapons, i.e., Lock 9-mm and .45-caliber SIG semiautomatic pistols. Such guns, and a slew of others, are easily available to street dealers through want-ads and wide-open gun-shows, which are not governed in most states by rules requiring identification and background checks like those that are mandatory under federal law for purchases in licensed gun shops.
In fact, the absence of uniform federal rules over gun-show and ad sales -- opposed by the NRA-promoted gun lobby -- is the singled biggest loophole in gun control laws. The next biggest gaps include the absence of limits on the number of guns that individuals may legally buy in a month from licensed dealers, and the myopic prohibition against using legal dealers' gun-sales records to track and restrain the activity of illegal street dealers.
Local governments, to be sure, cannot not rely alone on better policing and stricter gun laws to deal with rising gun violence. Community and government efforts are needed to establish stronger community institutions, parental coaching and education programs against gun violence. Schools, churches and youth-oriented organizations have learned to campaign against drug abuse and teen pregnancy. They must also lead the way in fighting gun violence and the tendency of youngsters to seek social safe havens in gangs and guns.
For a city that now prides itself on a downtown renaissance and an economy primed to swell with a new auto manufacturing industry here, Chattanooga's city government cannot -- and should not -- wait on some other community organization to tackle the idea of gun violence. It's a problem we've already neglected too long, and it will only worsen as more time passes if the city's leadership does not step- up now.