This story was updated Tuesday, May 31, 2022, at 10:11 p.m. with more information.
Reeling from a shooting in downtown Chattanooga that left six teenagers injured, local officials and residents alike are pleading for action aimed at tackling gun violence.
Action plans to curb the violence are viewed as lacking to some leaders. Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod, of Eastdale, said at a Tuesday afternoon meeting she has been unable to answer questions from constituents who are looking to be reassured that city officials are working to address the situation.
She said there are limitations on solutions offered by funding from sources such as the American Rescue Plan, passed last year by Democrats in Congress.
"It's going to get worse," Coonrod said during the meeting. "The police can only do so much. ARP funding ain't gonna fix it. What are we doing? What I just want to know, what's the plan moving forward, so we can communicate to our constituents? Because they're emailing and calling us for answers, and we can't even get answers."
Police confirmed in a Monday news release that five of the six victims, two females and three males, were 15 years old. A sixth victim was a 13-year-old boy. Two of the teens are in critical condition, while the rest sustained injuries that were not life-threatening.
In a Tuesday email, Chattanooga Police Department spokesman Jeremy Eames declined to comment when asked if police had confiscated any weapons, if any of the victims were cooperating with the investigation or what the medical status of the victims was.
Officials have said they believe the 10:48 p.m. shooting near 100 Cherry St. and 100 Walnut St. on Saturday began as an altercation between two groups of teenagers. Police were patrolling the area when they heard gunshots. They immediately began rendering aid to the victims, while other officers secured the scene. The six victims were transported to a hospital.
Later, police learned that two individuals from one of the groups shot at the other group, targeting one or two people, authorities said. However, police believe the majority of the victims were unintended targets and got caught in the crossfire.
The shootings in Chattanooga came the same week 19 students and two teachers were killed in a shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and less than a month after 10 people, mostly Black, were killed in what police said was a racially motivated shooting at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York.
The U.S. saw at least a dozen mass shootings over Memorial Day weekend, The Washington Post reported, using the definition for mass shootings used by the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit research organization that defines mass shootings as incidents where "four or more people are shot or killed, not including the shooter."
Discussions among local officials Tuesday first took place at an afternoon meeting. Then, later that evening, multiple residents continued to emphasize the importance of getting a grasp on gun violence during a City Council meeting that was initially meant to focus on public input into the 2023 fiscal year budget.
The shooting took place in the district represented by Councilwoman Raquetta Dotley, of East Lake, who said Tuesday evening that she had not been contacted by constituents since the incident but has been in discussions with Mayor Tim Kelly's administration and other parties about how to curb gun violence moving forward.
"We are working with the administration, as well as the Downtown Alliance, to possibly having events for teens or programming for teens that is something fun for them to do, something that's engaging, so they'll have other things to go to," Dotley said. "That's what we're working on now. Just trying to work out the logistics of that."
Joda Thongnopnua, Kelly's chief of staff, said at the council meeting the city's proposed fiscal year 2023 budget includes funding to more effectively combat gun violence, such as the onboarding of a director of gun violence prevention and public safety.
"Obviously, we can use more of our resources more effectively and having a dedicated person for that is going to be really, really, important," Thongnopnu said, later adding that the position's salary would be $109,000, and when accounting for benefits, the figure would hover around $150,000.
"We need more than somebody pulling up in a suit," Coonrod said. "We're not doing it right."
Chattanooga Police Chief Celeste Murphy, who also spoke at the Tuesday meeting, emphasized that parents also have to be involved if residents want to keep firearms out of the hands of the youth.
In particular, she made sure to emphasize that she was not "victim-blaming" but rather encouraging parents to watch over their children and make sure they are safe.
"We've got to work together; we can't do this alone," Murphy said. "If we can get people to make sure that they don't leave guns unattended in their cars or their homes, it's not victim-blaming. But if you could just make sure you work with us and, you know, if you have any type of firearms or anything like that that could be stolen from you, know the serial number to those things so we can try to trace it."
Other council members emphasized the importance of focusing on working directly with the youth and their families.
Councilman Chip Henderson, a Lookout Valley resident who chairs the council's Public Safety Committee, after the agenda meeting said legislation is not what's needed if the city wants to make concrete steps to tackle gun violence.
"What we're missing is the headlines that say we've got 15-year-olds running around downtown with firearms," Henderson said. "It's not like we need another gun law to address the fact that they shouldn't be having them, it's the fact that these kids, these children, are downtown at 11 o'clock at night with firearms. That's what we've got to address. That's a home situation."
Although Councilwoman Jenny Hill, of North Chattanooga, also noted that the city has limited power in crafting gun control laws due to the power of state and federal government, council Chairman Darrin Ledford, of East Brainerd, on the other hand, said that enforcing legislation is a common-sense first step to tackling the issue.
"I think one of the key components of this, and we could start with it right this second, is there are laws holding parents accountable for either destruction, bodily harm, for minors that they're under the protection of," Ledford said. "Enforcing the laws that we have on the books is a great place to start. I mean that can start right now. Paying attention to where your kids are, being responsible for your children, dropping them off downtown is probably not the best idea."
Ledford continued, though, adding that despite potential legislation aimed at curbing gun violence, "We can write all the laws we want to, but until we get serious as a community, not just the Chattanooga Police Department, that means parents, too, all the laws in the world aren't going to change this. We need some parents to step up."
Chattanooga resident Joe Hunter, also known locally as Uncle Joe — who said he was tapped by former Mayor Andy Berke and former Police Chief David Roddy to mentor and work with at-risk youth in the city — said he lacks help from officials that would help maximize his impact.
"I'm still in need of the same things I requested five years ago," Hunter said. "I'm still doing this work by myself. And I still need more resources to continue We need some help. I can't do it all by myself and I'm tired of doing it, frankly, by myself. You've got about two more years out of me at best. So I would suggest that you take my expertise and allow me to train some people and make a program for youth services. If you look in your city budget and don't see money itemized for youth services, then you're not giving your youth citizens due just."
Chattanooga resident Audrey Ramsey went on to describe how the violence is disproportionately impacting the local Black community.
"I don't need to repeat the tragedies of recent gun violence over the past weekend appearing around this country, and my heart breaks for the victims," Ramsey said. "But when I returned home about 3 1/2 years ago, it was obvious to me that the African American community here in Chattanooga is living in fear Hopelessness is a dangerous mindset. Children have no respect for life. They don't fear death. Most parents are not parenting, and teachers are leaving the schools in droves."
What needs to be done, she said, is increasing investments into children, their parents and the teachers who work with them on a daily basis.
Toward the end of Tuesday's council meeting, Chattanooga Police Sgt. Jason Holmes announced that an event that has been months in the making will take place in late June — something that could help garner the community support needed to make a change in Chattanooga.
The event, a three-on-three basketball tournament for students ranging from fourth grade to 12th grade, will take place from noon to 6 p.m. on June 26 at the Avondale Community Center. Food, prizes and a DJ will also be present at the event.
In the near future, residents will be able to register for the event online, Holmes said, and in-person registration will also be available.
"It's a great opportunity for everybody here who has decided that they want to be a part of something to change the community to come out and be amongst the kids and the youth," he said, "and also parents that will be available to share what experiences you have, whatever services you have, whatever resources you have."