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Gun violence in our region, and who's working to curb it

Raphael Gonçalves

The toll that gun violence takes on local communities goes beyond the recent shootings on UVa grounds. WMRA’s Randi B. Hagi has been studying the numbers, and filed this report.

Including the tragic events at the University of Virginia on November 13th, 15 people have died by gun violence in the WMRA region so far this year, and another 30 were injured in a total of 26 shooting incidents. These figures are based on a WMRA review of local news reports and law enforcement press releases from the Shenandoah Valley and Charlottesville area.

Twenty of those incidents have happened since the start of June. Seven have taken place in Charlottesville. This rapid series of shootings falls into a national and state-wide trend of rising gun violence.

James Madison University
Taimi Castle teaches criminology at James Madison University.

TAIMI CASTLE: Firearm homicides in Virginia were consistently increasing before the pandemic – so the period of 2013 - 2019, there was a 48% increase in firearm homicide.

Taimi Castle is the director of the Mahatma Gandhi Center for Global Nonviolence at James Madison University, where she also teaches criminology. There are caveats to simply interpreting this statistic as a rise in violent crime.

WMRA's operating license is held by JMU's board of visitors

CASTLE: … violent crime did not significantly increase in 2020 or 2021. It followed trends from previous years, but there's one big exception. The most serious form of violent crime, murder, it did rise significantly during the pandemic. … Both the FBI and CDC reported about a 30% increase in the murder rate between 2019 and 2020, and that marks one of the largest year over year increases ever recorded.

Using data submitted by local law enforcement agencies to the FBI, I looked at the total number of violent crimes reported in our broadcast region over the past five years. That reveals that violent crime rates varied by locality during this time period – some went up a bit, some down, some undulated, and some remained largely flat. However, Charlottesville did have the highest violent crime rate each year.

Violent crime rates by locality 2017-2021_tagged.jpg
WMRA, FBI Crime Data Explorer
Based on FBI data, this chart shows the number of violent crimes reported each year from 2017 - 2021 per 100,000 residents, broken down by locality.

But violent crime trends change depending on what you include under that label.

The FBI's database only inclues homicide, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault in its tally of violent crime. But if you look at all crimes against persons, as compiled by Criminal Justice Planner Neal Goodloe – he includes lesser charges, including the much more common offense of "simple assault." By his tally, Charlottesville's violent crime rate has fallen 36% in the past 10 years.

I spoke with Charlottesville's Commonwealth's Attorney, Joe Platania, a few weeks before the shooting at UVa. Even then, he said that, numbers aside –

Joe Platania.PNG
Joe Platania
Joe Platania is the Commonwealth's Attorney for the city of Charlottesville.

JOE PLATANIA: I don't think people are feeling as safe as they did a couple years ago.

The Commonwealth's Attorney for Augusta County, Timothy Martin, was also on the call. Both he and Platania spoke about balancing the need to protect the public from violence, while promoting diversion programs that stem the over-incarceration of nonviolent people.

Martin drew on his experience as a prosecutor in Richmond, where there were 160 homicides in 1994.

TIMOTHY MARTIN: As a reaction to that, they partnered with federal authorities, developed all sorts of strategies for reducing violent crime … a lot of it related to the selling and distribution of narcotics – and, ultimately, wound up incarcerating a lot of people, casting a wide net. That was an effective strategy when it came to reducing the number of violent crimes.

Augusta County
Timothy Martin is the Commonwealth's Attorney for Augusta County

According to FBI data, annual homicides in Richmond fell to 30 in 2008.

MARTIN: But it was also – it had a tremendous amount of collateral damage in the sense that we wound up, at that point, with an incarceration issue that I think hadn't been contemplated.

In October, a shooting on the downtown mall in Charlottesville left two minors injured, and led to the arrest of three teenagers – one who was just 14 years old. Afterwards, Platania issued a public statement asking for the community's help in curbing violence.

PLATANIA: I did call upon parents, teachers, mentors, faith leaders, and really it was a plea for help. And it was a plea to say, "we all need to sort of come together to try and figure out how to address this on the front end, and make contact with some people that might otherwise be committing crimes … but before anything happens."

He noted that, coming out of a pandemic –

PLATANIA: We're still, and it's going to be for a while – we're still unpacking the impacts on the mental health of individuals as we come out of this. Especially our young people.

According to Taimi Castle, many of the known drivers of violent crime and gun violence in particular were exacerbated by the pandemic. Bear in mind that she teaches a whole course on criminology – she couldn't pass on all of that theory in a single interview, and I certainly can't pass it on in a single news story.

But, for us laymen, criminologists have identified both macro-level contributors to violent crime rates –

CASTLE: … sort of a constellation of inequities – things like chronic disadvantage, racial and social isolation, residential instability, population density, and social disorganization.

And micro-level, or individual contributors –

CASTLE: … the inability to achieve material success … the presence of negative stimuli in someone's life – illness and death. The removal of positive stimuli – employment. These lead to crime and alcohol and drug use as responses to these strains.

When it comes to gun violence, another factor is, of course, the availability of guns. Researching that, though, can quickly become a politicized issue.

CASTLE: We know that gun violence is more prevalent in states with elevated levels of gun ownership and gun availability. … We find that right-to-carry laws are associated with increased violent crime. If you're carrying a gun and you have an altercation, or experience a threat to your masculinity, a gun becomes a resource to reestablish yourself as a dominant figure.

Part of our post-pandemic landscape as a country is an increase in gun ownership.

So, what can mitigate gun violence at the community level?

CASTLE: Multifaceted violence prevention programs in schools are effective, and they target everything like – empowering youth, learning resilience, social emotional learning … and they also provide family-based counseling. … Violence prevention curricula must be combined with community-based programs that increase community cohesion, but also address systemic reforms in alleviating poverty, for example. Also, systemic reforms in gun access, and systemic reforms in criminal justice.

Some people are already doing this work. One of them is Nick Feggans, a Charlottesville native who works in a local middle school through the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Virginia. In 2020, he helped found the organization Peace in the Streets, which uses a conflict resolution team to try and reduce gun violence.

Nick Feggans
Nick Feggans is a unit director with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Virginia, and a co-founder of Peace in the Streets.

NICK FEGGANS: Before the police get involved, give us a call, and eight times out of 10, we know the individuals. … We'll try to reach out to the people that's having the altercation – at least one side, speak with them, try to get them to separate from the other person if it's an ongoing situation right then and there…. Usually, at the end of the day, we leave, they conversate, they either handshake or just realize that the problem wasn't that big.

Feggan's experience working with kids and families has taught him a lot about responding to conflict.

FEGGANS: Just speaking to them, being respectful. Being aware of their situation. Some people are stressed out for other reasons. It may be bills, it may be family issues, but just coming to a person, speaking to them like they are a person.

He said that, when they were fully funded, they had six people on the conflict resolution team, but that funding ran out earlier this year – so they haven't been able to get out as much lately.

Besides the monetary investment needed for programs such as Peace in the Streets, Feggans said social media can be a major obstacle to reducing violence.

FEGGANS: When we were coming up, if you had a problem with someone, you saw them at school, you fought, and that was it. … Now when you have a problem and you leave school, you're on Snapchat with your friends, and then you've got this image to uphold.

Feggans, Taimi Castle, and others trying to reduce violence in our communities are facing ever-increasing challenges that we all must help to meet.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.