Rodricks: From Baltimore to San Jose, there is no end in sight to the gun violence cycle in the United States
On a Saturday night in May 1993 on 36th Street in the heart of Hampden, two young guys – one with a ponytail, the other with a “dumb and dumber” page boy – got into a fistfight after a wedding reception. I don’t remember what started the brawl, but it spilled out onto the street and ended up with the police arresting the guy with the bellboy.
On his day in court when the defendant was running for conviction, his attorney Steven Wyman asked the judge to consider something “refreshing” about the case to mitigate it.
“Refreshing?” District Court Judge Carol Smith asked.
“No guns,” said Wyman, a future judge himself. “A real fist fight like in our childhood.”
And nobody died.
In 1993 there were 353 murders in Baltimore, most of them with guns. It was the worst year for urban murders in a decade of incessant violence. No wonder Wyman thought his client deserved credit for being unarmed.
This old story from Hampden shows how long Baltimoreers were nostalgic for days when the nonsense that inevitably pops up between people left only black eyes and broken teeth, no fatal wounds. That was when the country had more people than weapons; Back when teenagers would beat and wrestle, don’t load and fire.
But that time is long gone.
And while I wish I could express some optimism about an end to our current misery – in many places, in cities and suburbs, in this troubled country – I don’t see it. I don’t know what would end the cycle. There are just too many weapons out there. More are being sold every day, legally and illegally.
Mass shootings are already the order of the day. The one in San Jose recently killed 10 people, and it has been at least nine since then, according to the Gun Violence Archive. (The nonprofit GVA, an online resource center, defines a mass shooting as one in which “at least four victims are shot, either injured or killed, without a shooter.”)
In the 45 years I’ve lived and worked in Baltimore, crime has never stopped. There were times when it dropped to a light breeze, but most of the time the wind kept blowing; you felt it every day.
Trying to stop gun violence to the extent necessary seems like a hopeless exercise. Even when the police make murder arrests, the shootings continue.
It is evident that weapons are at hand to disperse any nonsense that occurs between people.
For years we have been told – or after a while simply assumed – that most homicides have to do with trafficking in illicit drugs. Heroin and cocaine have been around for decades. Crack was linked to high homicide rates in the 1990s. It is therefore reasonable to assume that the high murder rates over the past six years are related to fentanyl sales: competition for customers, small dealers are robbed and shot, customers are shot for not paying their bills.
But it is clear that guns are not only used by drug dealers. They are used by husbands and friends who abuse women. Many shots come from contagion with retribution; Guns are used to settle personal bills – guys who piss off other guys, guys who get on fire for some old beef when they get out of jail.
All of these scenarios come from dark human emotions and states – anger, narcissism, greed, jealousy, thirst for revenge, desire for power. Given the human nature with weapons so readily available now, it’s hard to imagine how this ends.
I’ve been advancing intervention efforts – helping children at risk, giving jobs to ex-offenders, assisting Safe Streets conflict interrupters, convincing repeat offenders to step out of the cycle of crime before they are killed or returned to prison.
But all of these efforts seem to be outdone or undermined by the easy access to weapons and the violence they enable. We are in a cycle where the same conditions year after year produce the same horrors year after year. It goes against all logic.
The Baltimore sun