What is the cost of gun violence? More than any community can possibly calculate — and not just in lives.
That is the over-simplified answer sought by a recent Chattanooga Times Free Press five-day series titled "Cost of the Crossfire."
In a community forum Wednesday evening, we sought to learn how Chattanooga residents — moms and dads and teens and neighbors — hope to stop the violence, the pain and the drain.
As expected, the fixes are not as easy to describe as the causes: Poverty, lack of parental involvement, poor education, social media, mental health issues, low self-esteem, toxic masculinity, easy access and fascination with guns too often are not met with adequate funding for programs to stem the undertow.
But Keshun, an 8-year-old second grader at Hardy Elementary School may well have summed it up best:
"When they can't say it with their mouth, they say it with their fists or a gun," he said.
In 2018, there were 24 homicides in the city of Chattanooga, including those deemed "accidental" and "justified" by the Chattanooga Police Department.
There is some good news here: That's a nearly 30% decline from the 34 homicides the city saw in 2017 and 33 in 2016.
Still, the city saw 113 criminal shooting victims last year with a third of them, 39, being gang-related.
One is too many, and more than 80% of the homicides were carried out with a gun. In all of Tennessee, gun violence costs state taxpayers about $8 billion a year — yet that's just one cost.
In our town, a majority of the shootings are concentrated in East Chattanooga, where the forum was held Wednesday. About 50 people attended, but notably absent were any — repeat, any — elected officials, despite invitations to them. Not the City Council, the County Commission, the Board of Education. Not a single mayor from our county and multitude of towns. Not even a dog catcher.
There were representatives from the Chattanooga Police Department, the Youth & Family Development Center, Chattanooga Students Leading Change, the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department, The Loving Life Project and Moms Demand Action.
Most of those are parents and teachers and mental health counselors who have become who they are because they see the pain and cost of gun violence and its attendant problems.
"Gun violence is something that we all know too well and we cannot speak of gun violence unless we talk about why people are so angry they will risk losing their life to take another," said Ann Pierre, a grandmother, a longtime community organizer and a former Hamilton County school board candidate for District 5. "I am waiting to see if this is a study that will be placed on a shelf or if it is a study that looks at the structural issues that cause issues in communities of color and economically-deprived communities."
Pierre challenged the newspaper, asking what we plan to do with the results not just of our report, but also with the results of the forum.
With all due respect, the paper has led this charge. This page alone in just the past five years has written on this topic dozens of times. And although we'll keep coming back to it, the ball is squarely in the community's court.
Remember at the next election that no public officials joined the community to talk about your concerns. But remember, too, that at least some public officials have been at the table.
Chattanooga's mayor and police department, with limited success, initiated a gang violence program dubbed Violence Reduction Initiative, VRI for short. VRI's aim — no pun intended — was toward the small core of people who were shot and who shot back. It set rules for those young gang members and gave them a choice: Stop shooting and receive social services, or watch law enforcement come at you hard. You'll face the full force of the law if you keep pulling the trigger, they were told. Some of those "hard" cases are still working their way through court. But a 30% reduction in the violence was far short of expectations after disagreements between police and prosecutors, and after the social services portion of the plan shamefully fizzled.
That brings us back to the community. What's missing over and over are the moms and dads and aunts and uncles, grandparents, teachers, neighbors — the people who must decide they will not be quiet and absent any longer when their public officials don't show up at forums or don't let community members speak at meetings, or decide it's more important to fund a street beautification project than a youth jobs program.
If the community wants the TFP's "Cost of the Crossfire" report off the shelf, it has to pick it up and carry it to every public meeting — from school board to city to county to Nashville — until our leaders know you're serious about wanting fully funded mentoring, counseling and mental health programs, along with stronger gun safety programs, better parenting supports, equity in schools, jobs training and other resources that can change the trajectory of poverty and cultural ignorance in Chattanooga, Hamilton County and the region.