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St. Louis gun violence and the real Ferguson effect

Written by William J. Maxwell, PhD, professor in the Department of English in Arts & Sciences

By the standards of St. Louis in 2015, the last weekend of September was an island of calm. Readers of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on the Monday after learned that a 20-year-old woman, shot in the hip while driving down Interstate 70 early Sunday morning, would quickly recover. A fatal shooting at Carondelet Park on Saturday night would be reclassified as an act of self-defense; police reported that the 37-year-old victim had been killed after pretending to level a handgun at a stranger he thought was staring too hard at his brother. The life of a luckier man was spared after he fired multiple rounds at cops in St. Charles. Police had arrived at his home on Sunday morning to help remove the belongings of his ex-girlfriend, only to be met by gunfire through the locked front door. After an unsuccessful negotiation, they coaxed the 47-year-old to surrender through teargas rounds alone. Despite a flurry of bullets just blocks away, a team of visiting Harvard University graduate students survived an on-site lecture on the history of Martin Luther King Drive presented on Sunday afternoon. As the Post-Dispatch told it, the gunshots reminded the students’ hopeful professor, planning a neighborhood design project, that “you have to be realistic about what you can accomplish.” Finally, news broke late Monday that the 43-year-old Army veteran shot in the back yards from Busch Stadium on Friday night would probably never walk again. He and his girlfriend, returning to their car after celebrating a family birthday at a Cardinals game, had made the mistake of turning to run after handing over her purse. But it could have been worse—the veteran might have died in clear sight of the soaring Gateway Arch, the Basilica of St. Louis erected in 1770, and the Old Courthouse where Dred and Harriet Scott had once sued for their freedom.

Football practice in Ferguson.

All bitter irony aside, such news really is what passes for good news about gun violence in greater St. Louis in 2015. St. Louis city alone is on track to 2,000 shootings for the year, 200 of them fatal. Even the lower totals for 2014 made the urban core of our region the nineteenth most dangerous city anywhere—nineteenth not in the U.S., that is, but on the planet. Nearly fifty out of every 100,000 St. Louisans in 2014—or make that one in 2,000—were murdered, the great majority of them by firearms. (By comparison, traffic deaths were down to 10 per every 100,000 U.S. citizens in 2013.) In this respect, St. Louis outranked the famously violent global cities of Juárez, Kingston, and Medellín, as well as our national peers of Detroit, New Orleans, and Baltimore. It’s true that the Gateway City has long been associated with gunplay as well as baseball and Budweiser: the two most memorable murder ballads in American music, “Stagger Lee” and “Frankie and Johnny,” were inspired by actual St. Louis gun crimes of the turn of the twentieth century. But by one telling gauge—homicides per 100,000 residents—we have grown beyond our standing as the murder capital of America and become a world capital of gun death.

It doesn’t take a degree in medicine to understand that these statistics and the broken life stories behind them point to a public health emergency. I don’t have anything like such a degree—I’m a professor of English and African American Studies—but even I can see how gun violence haunts St. Louis health care providers as well as the thousands of victims they treat (sometimes, of course, these two groups are one and the same). Other contributors to this blog are better able to document the burden such violence places on nurses, doctors, and hospitals, and to tote up the related costs to our region’s economic well-being: $197 million in 2014, as one estimate has it. What I’d like to underline here, by contrast, is a less quantifiable but still sky-high cost of St. Louis gun violence: the damage it does, day after day, to the area’s prospects for healing and reconstruction after Ferguson. With the news of each new drive-by, rolling gun battle, and toddler shot while playing house, the dream of a more just, more equitable, and more unified St. Louis bleeds life. I have no doubt that the staggering frequency of gun violence in St. Louis is in part the product of our region’s structural racism, steep economic inequality, and entrenched pockets of predatory policing. All the same, I’m convinced that the tough steps needed to overcome these ills will never be taken without a sharp reduction in gun crime and gun fear. Gun violence did not create the social conditions that plague St. Louis, but it makes these conditions far too hard to repair.

Like most other things in St. Louis, death by firearms is unevenly distributed by race, a subject I’ve carefully avoided thus far. Over 90 percent of the St. Louis residents killed by guns in 2015 have been African Americans, nearly two-thirds of them under thirty. Their deaths, heartbreaking and traumatizing for their friends and families, also ravage the larger community of the young needed to remake the city—a community that showed its tremendous capacity for creative action in the nonviolent protests around Ferguson. It’s now clear that St. Louis’s black youth have sparked the longest and most influential national campaign for African American civil rights since the 1960s. Yet the ability of that campaign to reform its birthplace is endangered by the bullets that strike young black St. Louisans with awful regularity, sowing distrust, despair, or numbed resignation, and feeding racist myths of inherent black criminality. It’s all too easy for white St. Louis to blame the victims, to dismiss the history of formal segregation and the present of debtors’ prisons and decaying public schools, when the daily crime blotter doubles as a litany of black killing and black death. And it’s natural for black St. Louis to interpret the same grim news as a confession of police indifference and government disinvestment, or worse. Even when it comes to public sympathy for gun victims, in fact, black St. Louisans have reason to be reminded of racial inequality. The unusual, humanizing attention local media has paid to the paralyzed Army veteran I described above is likely due to his race—white—as much as to his status as a soldier tragically wounded at home.

After the bullets flew near Martin Luther King Drive, the visiting Harvard professor remembered that “you have to be realistic” about changing St. Louis. For St. Louis locals of all races, the daily reminders of gun violence press realism in the direction of hopelessness, and thus the status quo. Countering nostalgia for the edgier Manhattan of the 1970s, Adam Gopnik recently recalled that “it was crime and the fear of violence,” however exaggerated, that incited “the paranoia about [New York] that became a staple of the American political diet for decades.” In the case of the smaller, less wealthy city of St. Louis in 2015, mounting gun crime and gun violence propel a racially divisive paranoia that shifts the prognosis for post-Ferguson reform from difficult to impossible. We must make St. Louis less of a gun capital, then, for it to have any chance to become a capital of equal opportunity.