OPED: For Baltimore kids, violence is a way of life

Kevin Rector
Tribune News Service

Listen to the kids from Parkland about gun violence, but listen to the kids in Baltimore, too.

Jane Schwartz, 17, of West Springfield, Va., center, screams during a protest in favor of gun control reform in front of the White House, Monday, Feb. 19, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Since the killing of 17 students, teachers and coaches at a Florida high school on Wednesday, many brave students who survived have spoken out about the need for change. As victims of the psychological and emotional damage that always spreads like shrapnel from incidents of gun violence, they should be heard.

I just hope people know kids in Baltimore want change, too. They've been calling for it for years.

Massacres in America are so frequent now that we count and categorize them. We compare 20 first graders and six adults being killed in an elementary school to 17 slaughtered at a high school. We consider what we would do ourselves if bullets started flying in a night club, or raining down from above at an outdoor festival.

We do a similar counting and categorizing of gun violence in Baltimore, it's just more routine.

Here, the massacre is meted out in daily doses.

One of the biggest accomplishments in Baltimore's recent battle with gun violence was a 12-day stint without a homicide. It ended last Tuesday when two people were fatally shot in Northeast Baltimore, each on the block where they lived.

For the past three years, someone has been killed in Baltimore — population about 615,000 — almost every day, so 12 days off was quite a break.

Last year, there were 342 homicides counted by police, a per capita record. The rate at which people are killed here makes Baltimore one of the more violent cities in the world, not just the United States.

Despite the ever-more-frequent massacres of children and church-goers nationwide, many places in the United States remain relatively safe. But not Baltimore.

More:Baltimore group eager to break cycle of bloodshed

More than 1,000 people were killed here between 2015 and 2017, and 30 more so far this year.

The gun of choice here isn't the AR-15, as it was at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland and has been in so many other recent mass shootings. Here, it's the handgun.

Nearly 90 percent of the 342 people killed here last year were killed with a firearm, and most of those — nearly 300 — were killed with a handgun.

I've never tried to buy a gun on the street, but many people have told me it's easier than getting a job, especially if you have a criminal record.

About 44 percent of identified homicide suspects and 46 percent of victims in Baltimore in 2017 had previously been arrested for gun crimes, according to police data.

"It's like sitting on a keg of dynamite," Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh told me at the end of last year, of all the killing in the city. "If we don't fix it, it will all explode."

People in Baltimore feel that way every day, not just when someone busts into a school with a rifle.

In a Baltimore high school that lost five students to street violence last school year and has lost two more since, not counting others who have been shot and wounded, I sat in a classroom last spring as a local minister asked how many of the students there knew their classmates who had been killed. A few raised their hands.

When he asked how many had known someone else killed in the city, five more hands shot up, then six: a majority of the students in the room.

"I'm here today because I watched my homebody die," one student told me. "I ain't trying to end up the same way."

"Everywhere you go," another said, "you gotta watch your back."

More:Shooting survivors become advocates for stronger weapon laws

These kids, like those in Florida, know firsthand the toll of gun violence in their communities. At the moment, they stand to inherit a nation of regular massacres. We owe it to them to listen.

— Kevin Rector covers crime and the Baltimore Police Department for The Sun.