Smaller U.S. cities struggle with high teen gun violence rates
WILMINGTON, Delaware — When the shots rang out — “pop, pop, pop,” and then a thunder roll of gunfire — Maria Williams hit the floor.
The bullets sprayed through her front door and window, leaving perfectly cylindrical holes in the glass. They blasted across the nursery, where her 2-year-old daughter’s toys were strewn on the carpet. They burrowed into the kitchen cabinetry — and hit her teenage son and daughter.
Amid their screams, “All I could think of was, ‘I’m not losing another child,’” Williams recalled, tears streaming down her cheek.
Her 18-year-old stepson — William Rollins VI, known as Lil Bill — had been gunned down two years before, another victim of Wilmington’s plague of teens shooting teens. His shooter was 17.
Wilmington isn’t Chicago or Los Angeles, Baltimore or Detroit. It is a city of less than 72,000 people known primarily as the birthplace of chemical giant DuPont and as a cozy home for big banks and Fortune 500 firms. But an Associated Press and USA TODAY Network analysis of Gun Violence Archive data — gathered from media reports and police press releases, and covering a 3½ year period through June of this year — reveals that Wilmington far and away leads the country in its rate of shootings among young people ages 12 to 17.
“It’s nonstop, just nonstop,” said William Rollins V, father of the teenagers. “Around every turn, they’re taking our kids.”
Of the 10 cities with the highest rates of teen shootings, most had populations of less than 250,000 people. Among them were Savannah, Georgia; Trenton, New Jersey; Syracuse, New York; Fort Myers, Florida; and Richmond, Virginia. Chicago was the lone large-population city high on the list.
Poverty and a sense of hopelessness in the most violent neighborhoods is a common thread. Syracuse, a university town that once cranked out air conditioners and televisions, now has a poverty rate of 35 percent.
Size also may play a role. In tightly packed neighborhoods, insults and perceived insults ricochet like shots in an echo chamber. One shooting inevitably leads to speculation about who will be targeted next.
“The streets remember,” said Mark Denney, a state prosecutor who is trying to end Wilmington’s retaliatory warfare.
In Wilmington, data from the Gun Violence Archive show that roughly 3 out of every 1,000 adolescents are injured or killed annually from gun violence. That is almost twice the rate reported from Chicago and just over 9 times the national average as reported for 2015 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The news organizations sought to measure teenage gun violence in America’s cities because it is something the federal government does not track on a regular and comprehensive basis.
Nearly a quarter of Wilmington’s residents live below the poverty line, and 86 percent of the city’s youth receive some form of state assistance.
About 30 active street crews exist in Wilmington today, estimated David Kennedy, a national expert in criminology who has for years studied the city’s crime problem. Prosecutors say these crews, made up of roughly 20 people per group, are responsible for most of Wilmington’s crime.
A yearlong investigation by The News Journal, Gannett’s Wilmington newspaper that is part of the USA TODAY Network, detailed a veritable war between two groups — Only My Brothers and Shoot to Kill. A News Journal analysis of court records, social media and the newspaper’s internal database found that a third of the shooting victims under age 21 during the first seven months of 2016 had links to the rivalry.
Mayor Mike Purzycki said some of the blame can be laid on a “fractured education system” that sends children on buses to schools in rival neighborhoods. Many fathers are either in prison or have past convictions that make it difficult for them to find good jobs.
Wilmington officials have desperately cast about for solutions — without success, at least so far.
In December 2013, City Council President Hanifa Shabazz asked the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to investigate. It would be the agency’s first-ever inquiry into gun violence as a public health epidemic. The agency found that, between 2009 and 2014, 15 percent of the people arrested in Wilmington for a firearms crime were under the age of 18.
The CDC recommended that agencies share information such as school truancy records, child welfare reports and emergency room visits to identify minors who need help earlier in life to avoid violence later. But after closing a $400 million budget gap through a combination of tax hikes and spending cuts, Delaware Gov. John Carney said the state doesn’t have the money to execute the CDC’s plan.
The community, meanwhile, is pressing forward on its own.
Derrick Reed, who owns His Image Barber Lounge near Wilmington’s Little Italy, began holding sessions for teens at his shop on Monday evenings.
Latisha Jackson organized 302 MAFIA (302 is Wilmington’s area code; MAFIA stands for Mothers and Fathers In Action) to create a support system for those returning home from prison, and to wake parents up to the possibility that their children are becoming caught up in dangerous activity: her two boys were recently indicted on gun charges; the younger one also pleaded guilty to a gang charge as well. She said she had no idea.
“The craziest thing about it is, these kids are accepting it,” William Rollins said. “Like, they’re accepting going to jail for life. They’re accepting getting put in the grave. But they don’t realize the effect that they do to everybody else around them.”
— Associated Press writer Allen G. Breed contributed to this report.
— EDITOR’S NOTE — Part of an ongoing examination of gun violence in America by The Associated Press and the USA TODAY Network.