A Drumbeat of Multiple Shootings

By SHARON LaFRANIERE, DANIELA PORAT and AGUSTIN ARMENDARIZ

But what took place at 6101 Prentice Street on Aug. 21 may say more about the nature of gun violence in the United States than any of those far more famous rampages. It is a snapshot of a different sort of mass violence — one that erupts with such anesthetic regularity that it is rendered almost invisible, except to the mostly black victims, survivors and attackers.

According to the police account, more than 30 people had gathered in the paneled basement bar of the lodge to mark the 39th birthday of a man named Greg Wallace when a former neighbor, Timothy Murphy, showed up, drunk. Fists flew. Mr. Murphy ducked out the door, burst back in with a handgun, and opened fire.

As partygoers scrambled for the door, he chased Greg Wallace’s younger brother Dawaun to a tiny black-and-white-tiled bathroom, where he shot him nine times before the violence spilled out onto the street. There, another Wallace relative, also armed with a handgun, fired back at him.

By the end, 27 bullets had flown, hitting seven people: Mr. Murphy, who died; Dawaun Wallace, who was grievously wounded; four bystanders, one of whom was hit in the genitals, another in the leg.

And Barry Washington.

A seasonal packer for Amazon.com, Mr. Washington, 56, had stopped at the lodge on his way to the store for cigarettes, said his sister, Jaci Washington. He was in the bathroom when Mr. Murphy cornered Dawaun Wallace there. A single bullet pierced Mr. Washington’s arm, then his heart.

He left behind a son, a daughter, a brother, a sister, a mother and four grandchildren.

“My brother died on the floor of a bathroom for no reason,” Ms. Washington said. “He had nothing to do with the whole situation. I can’t believe I lost my brother like this.”

Yet many in the neighborhood where they grew up, she said, responded with a shrug. “The reality is, this happens quite frequently,” she said. “And it’s kind of, ‘Oh, well, this guy was killed today. Somebody else will be killed tomorrow.’ ”

That is more than correct. The Elks Lodge episode was one of at least 358 armed encounters nationwide last year — nearly one a day, on average — in which four or more people were killed or wounded, including attackers. The toll: 462 dead and 1,330 injured, sometimes for life, typically in bursts of gunfire lasting but seconds.

In some cities, law enforcement officials say a growing share of shootings involve more than one victim, possibly driven by increased violence between street gangs. But data are scarce.

Seeking deeper insight into the phenomenon, The New York Times identified and analyzed these 358 shootings with four or more casualties, drawing on two databases assembled from news reports and citizen contributors, and then verifying details with law enforcement agencies.

Only a small handful were high-profile mass shootings like those in South Carolinaand Oregon. The rest are a pencil sketch of everyday America at its most violent.

They chronicle how easily lives are shattered when a firearm is readily available — in a waistband, a glove compartment, a mailbox or garbage can that serves as a gang’s gun locker. They document the mayhem spawned by the most banal of offenses: a push in a bar, a Facebook taunt, the wrong choice of music at a house party. They tally scores of unfortunates in the wrong place at the wrong time: an 11-month-old clinging to his mother’s hip, shot as she prepared to load him into a car; a 77-year-old church deacon, killed by a stray bullet while watching television on his couch.

The shootings took place everywhere, but mostly outdoors: at neighborhood barbecues, family reunions, music festivals, basketball tournaments, movie theaters, housing project courtyards, Sweet 16 parties, public parks. Where motives could be gleaned, roughly half involved or suggested crime or gang activity. Arguments that spun out of control accounted for most other shootings, followed by acts of domestic violence.

The typical victim was a man between 18 and 30, but more than 1 in 10 were 17 or younger. Less is known about those who pulled the triggers because nearly half of the cases remain unsolved. But of those arrested or identified as suspects, the average age was 27.

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Most of the shootings occurred in economically downtrodden neighborhoods. These shootings, by and large, are not a middle-class phenomenon.

The divide is racial as well. Among the cases examined by The Times were 39 domestic violence shootings, and they largely involved white attackers and victims. So did many of the high-profile massacres, including a wild shootout between Texas biker gangs that left nine people dead and 18 wounded.

Most of the shootings occurred in economically downtrodden neighborhoods. These shootings, by and large, are not a middle-class phenomenon.

The divide is racial as well. Among the cases examined by The Times were 39 domestic violence shootings, and they largely involved white attackers and victims. So did many of the high-profile massacres, including a wild shootout between Texas biker gangs that left nine people dead and 18 wounded.
Over all, though, nearly three-fourths of victims and suspected assailants whose race could be identified were black. Some experts suggest that helps explain why the drumbeat of dead and wounded does not inspire more outrage.

“Clearly, if it’s black-on-black, we don’t get the same attention because most people don’t identify with that. Most Americans are white,” said James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University in Boston. “People think, ‘That’s not my world. That’s not going to happen to me.’ ”

Michael Nutter, a former Philadelphia mayor, who is black, said that society would not be so complacent if whites were dying from gun violence at the same rate as blacks.

“The general view is it’s one bad black guy who has shot another bad black guy,” he said. “And so, one less person to worry about.”

Droves of experts study high-profile massacres by so-called lone-wolf assailants, usually driven by mental disorders, at schools, workplaces and other public spaces. Academics regularly crunch data on single homicides and assaults. But the near-daily shootings that wound or kill several victims — a relatively small subset of the shootings that kill nearly 11,000 people and wound roughly 60,000 more each year — are uncharted territory for researchers, said Richard B. Rosenfeld, a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

The Times compiled its list of 358 shootings with four or more casualties from largely crowd-sourced lists managed by the social media network Reddit and Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit organization. The groups recently combined their efforts at the website gunviolencearchive.org.

Four or more casualties is a far broader measure than “mass shootings,” which are commonly defined as the killing of at least four people, not including the attacker. But it captures many victims who some criminologists say are too often ignored: people who might have died given a slightly different trajectory of a bullet, or less-sophisticated medical care.

Counting assailants among casualties increased the total number of cases by fewer than three dozen, most of them domestic violence shootings that ended in suicide. Hispanics were not separately identified, because police reports do not systematically identify victims and suspects by ethnicity, only by race.

There are 358 reasons for those 358 shootings, though some remain a mystery; in about a fourth of the cases, investigators have discerned no motive.

As for the rest, some patterns stand out. The fewest occurred while another felony, such as a burglary, was underway. Domestic violence shootings were nearly as infrequent, but were among the deadliest.

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About a third were provoked by arguments, typically drug- or alcohol-fueled, often over petty grievances.

A sampling:

Outside a crowded bar in Decatur, Ill., a customer found an expensive watch. When another man insisted it was his, the customer pulled out a semiautomatic handgun, shot the man in the face and wounded four people near him.

After a day of drinking, singing karaoke and watching football, four middle-aged friends in a small town north of Baton Rouge, La., got into a fight — some said over the choice of music. One shot the other three, then killed himself.

Outside an Orlando, Fla., housing project, lewd comments about a young man’s pregnant girlfriend resulted in 15 to 20 gunshots. A 10-year-old boy who peered out his window at the fracas was struck directly in one eye. One of three wounded adults later acknowledged that “a one-on-one fist fight would have settled the issue,” the police report said.

Another third of the 358 cases — and the most common in cities with more than 250,000 residents — were either gang-related or were drive-by shootings typical of gangs.

But the police and prosecutors say many of those were not directly linked to criminal activity, such as a dispute over a drug deal. More often, a minor dust-up — a boast, an insult, a decision to play basketball on another gang’s favorite court — was taken as a sign of disrespect and answered with a bullet, said Andrew V. Papachristos, a Yale University professor who studies gang behavior.

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Over all, two-thirds of shootings took place outdoors, endangering innocent people. More than 100 bystanders, from toddlers to grandparents, were injured or killed.

Among them: eight family members shot as they bade one another goodbye after a reunion in Philadelphia; a soldier struck by a stray bullet during a shootout in a public square in Savannah, Ga.; a 19-year-old college sophomore killed when a gunman sprayed a crowd outside an Ocala, Fla., club.

In Cincinnati, where last year’s toll of 479 gun deaths and injuries was the highest in nine years, a growing share of shootings involves more than one victim — 1 in 8 attacks with guns in the first half of last year compared with 1 in 12 over the same span in 2010.

Police officials in some other cities have noted a similar trend, though others say they have not. What is behind the upticks, they said, is a matter of speculation.

In Rochester, multiple-victim shootings accounted for fewer than 15 percent of victims in 2006; so far this year, they make up 38 percent. Police Chief Michael Ciminelli said that he suspected that social media was playing a role by simultaneously catalyzing minor disputes into deadly standoffs and drawing more people into them.

Larry C. Smith, interim chief of police in Durham, N.C., and a 28-year veteran of the force, said, “Are we starting to reap the video-game age? I don’t know.”

“But five, or certainly 10 years ago,” he added, “it wasn’t like this.”

The Elks Lodge shooting was one of five last year in Cincinnati that resulted in at least four casualties. The others took place on street corners, on a front porch and at a cookout in a parking lot.

Police officials say they suspect that as many as half of the 24 victims were not the intended targets; community workers blame self-taught gunmen who are often high on drugs or are drunk. “They are not marksmen,” said Aaron Pullins, an anti-violence worker. “They don’t know how to hold the gun. They just shoot.”

Investigators have linked three of those shootings to gangs, although like many of their counterparts in other cities, they say the word gang conjures up a false image of a tight-knit, hierarchical criminal organization. Instead, they describe fluid, sometimes tiny bands of teenagers and young adults bound by illegal activity. “They are groups of friends who rob and shoot each other,” Detective Greg Gehring said. “That’s just what they do.”

And they do it all too well. Last year such groups accounted for 40 of Cincinnati’s 58 gun homicides and more than half of its 421 nonfatal shootings.

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Two of the five shootings with four or more casualties occurred just 300 feet apart in East Westwood, an impoverished neighborhood with high unemployment and dropout rates, on a block that averaged a shooting nearly every other month. A third occurred a mile away. That pattern is typical: Urban gun violence tends to spread around specific blocks or intersections, like a contagious disease.

Rival gang members, seeking revenge for an earlier shooting, had already tried to run Jonathan Austin, 24, off the road when they caught up to him in early December outside the Schwarz Market in East Westwood, the police said. They chased him and his friends for an entire block, firing up to 50 shots.

Mr. Austin was killed. Three of his friends were injured, including an 18-year-old who was shot repeatedly in the back, damaging his spine. Detective Gehring said that when he talked to the teenager last month, he was bedridden in his mother’s apartment, worried he would never move his legs again.

With the help of the market’s surveillance video and one witness, the police arrested a 31-year-old felon on charges of murder and illegal possession of a weapon. But as many as five other gunmen got away. A few weeks ago, one of the suspects was shot 11 times, possibly in retaliation, the detective said.

Street violence is self-perpetuating that way: Shootings beget shootings that beget more gunmen. Professor Papachristos, the gang expert, said the more violent the neighborhood, the more teenagers and young men seek safety in numbers.

“The No. 1 reason people join gangs is for protection,” he said. “The perverse irony is they are then more at risk.”

‘Our Children Killing Our Children’

Ali-Rashid Abdullah, 67 and broad-shouldered with a neatly trimmed gray beard, is an ex-convict turned outreach worker for Cincinnati’s Human Relations Commission. He or his co-workers were at the scenes of all five of Cincinnati’s shootings with four or more casualties last year, working the crowds outside the yellow police tape, trying to defuse the potential for further gunfire.

They see themselves as stop signs for young black men bound for self-destruction. They also see themselves as truth-tellers about the intersection of race and gun violence — a topic that neither the city’s mayor, who is white, nor its police chief, who is black, publicly addresses.

“White folks don’t want to say it because it’s politically incorrect, and black folks don’t know how to deal with it because it is their children pulling the trigger as well as being shot,” said Mr. Abdullah, who is black.

No one worries more about black-on-black violence than African-Americans. Surveys show that they are more fearful than whites that they will be crime victims and that they feel less safe in their neighborhoods.

Most parents Mr. Abdullah meets are desperate to protect their children but are trapped in unsafe neighborhoods, he said, “just trying to survive.” And some are in denial, refusing to believe that their sons are carrying or using pistols, even in the face of clear evidence.

“ ‘Not my child,’ ” he said, adopting the resentful tone of a defensive mother. “ ‘It may be his friends, but not my child, because I know how I raised my child.’ ”

His reply, he said, is blunt: “These are our children killing our children, slaughtering our children, robbing our children. It’s our responsibility first.”

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Note: F.B.I. data shown is the average rate of gun homicides over five-year periods. It excludes Florida and includes Hispanics among both races. The C.D.C. estimates a significantly wider disparity between rates for black and white gun homicide victims, excluding Hispanics of both races.

African-Americans make up 44 percent of Cincinnati’s nearly 300,000 residents. But last year they accounted for 91 percent of shooting victims, and very likely the same share of suspects arrested in shootings, according to the city’s assistant police chief, Lt. Col. Paul Neudigate.

Nationally, reliable racial breakdowns exist only for victims and offenders in gun homicides, not assaults, but those show a huge disparity.

The gun homicide rate peaked in 1993, in tandem with a nationwide crack epidemic, and then plummeted over the next seven years. But blacks still die from gun attacks at six to 10 times the rate of whites, depending on whether the data is drawn from medical sources or the police. F.B.I. statistics show that African-Americans, who constitute about 13 percent of the population, make up about half of both gun homicide victims and their known or suspected attackers.

“Every time we look at the numbers, we are pretty discouraged, I have to tell you,” said Gary LaFree, a professor of criminology at the University of Maryland.

Some researchers say the single strongest predictor of gun homicide rates is the proportion of an area’s population that is black. But race, they say, is merely a proxy for poverty, joblessness and other socio-economic disadvantages that help breed violence.

Mr. Nutter, now an urban policy professor at Columbia University, spoke out repeatedly about the disparity during his eight years as Philadelphia’s mayor — and was accused of casting African-Americans in a bad light. “Some people got upset,” he said. “I said, ‘I’ll stop talking about it when you stop killing each other.’ ”

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Note: Some ZIP codes had more than one encounter.

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