Charmaine John looked worried as she gazed out over Spofford Avenue in Hunts Point on Election Day last June. After leaving the voting booth that Tuesday, she said she’d voted for Manhattan Borough President Eric Adams for mayor in the Democratic primary, for one reason: gun violence.
“I’m basically scared of ‘out there.’ To go out, to even, say, go take a walk, or go to the park,” said John. “You care for your kids, and you want them to go out there and learn life, but they’re scared. And it’s getting worse.”
Many South Bronx residents share John’s concerns over rising gun violence, helping explain the overwhelming support Adams, a former NYPD officer, received from Bronx voters for his hard stance on crime.
In the midst of the pandemic, with businesses shuttering, jobs disappearing, and schools remaining closed, shootings have hit an alarming high in the borough, mirroring similar surges in gun violence around the city and across the country. In July, now-former Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a state of emergency, declaring gun violence a state-wide public health crisis.
According to the New York Police Department’s crime data tracking system, CompStat, shootings in Mott Haven are already at their highest since 1997. Hunts Point’s 41st Precinct are close behind. In Mott Haven, the NYPD reported 27 shootings for 2020 as of mid-August, compared with 43 this year, a nearly 60 percent spike. In Hunts Point the rise is a more modest 21 percent, from 14 incidents to 17.
Gov. Cuomo and elected officials from the Bronx have introduced measures and passed legislation hoping to combat the problem, including the creation of a statewide task force to prevent gun violence, to be administered by the New York State Department of Health.
In addition, $138 million will be invested for violence prevention and mental health and drug treatment initiatives statewide, and a task force to prevent arms trafficking from other states, and a proposed jobs program for young people would create 8,000 summer jobs and longer term employment in the Bronx.
Bronx elected officials and anti-violence activists are contemplating different ways to silence the guns.
“Right now, gun violence is the number one issue in my district,” said first-term Assembly Member Kenny Burgos, whose district covers parts of Longwood, Hunts Point, and Soundview. “I go to my precinct council meetings or community board meetings and, just in passing conversation with constituents, it’s a real worry.”
Burgos has worked on gun control legislation, and is especially hopeful about the plan to crack down on firearms trafficking from other states. Addressing housing, unemployment, and job creation for young people in lower income areas are what’s most needed, he said.
“We know these guns are most likely not getting shipped overseas here on the Eastern Seaboard,” he said. “They’re probably being driven through gun-loving states like Pennsylvania, or some other southern states. We have to stop it at the root.”
Assembly Member Amanda Septimo, whose district covers Mott Haven, Port Morris and parts of Melrose, echoed the need to treat other social ills, noting that the pandemic exacerbated existing problems.
“People have pent up energy and less to do, and you add economic pressure. You add heat, you add more guns on the streets than ever,,” to “get to this place that we’re at,” said Septimo, who favors creating activities for teens.
Both favor intervention programs that emphasize communicating with young people to stem retaliatory violence.
James Dobbins III, who directs the non-profit group Guns Down, Life Up out of Lincoln Hospital, explained that a significant portion of gun violence is retaliatory, often based on grievances the shooters and their victims can’t even remember.
“There is a lot of internet beef,” said Dobbins, “A lot of the beef is inherited. Just because you live in a certain part, a certain section of the Bronx, you beefin’ with other sections.”
Guns Down Life Up enlists volunteer ambassadors they call “credible messengers,” to negotiate with friends and relatives of shooting victims to resolve beefs before it’s too late, in Lincoln’s Trauma Unit, one of the nation’s busiest.
“When somebody gets shot or stabbed, the ambulance comes for the patients, the police come for the crime scene, we come for that young man who wanna retaliate,” said Dobbins. “We come for that mother and family that are traumatized.”
As the state invests more money in programs like his, Dobbins hopes to expand it to offer youth employment.
But others doubt that the public health approach to the violence epidemic will be enough. Gabriel De Jesus, longtime president of the 40th Precinct Community Council, which liases between the local precinct and area residents, says prevention measures can only go so far.
“I’m sure that they are there to calm the waters a little bit between rivalry beef,” said De Jesus, but added, “I don’t know if putting more money into this instead of actual enforcement is really going to do anything. It seems like it’s not working,” in a climate in which “gun violence and shootings are [up] 250%. We’ve had, in the last couple of months, like 16, 17 shootings. We do need money towards health, but we also need money towards enforcement.”
For De Jesus, a robust NYPD has to be a key part of the equation in keeping the peace.
“If they’re gonna make an effective arrest, they really can’t make the arrest without having to look over their backs in crowds jumping on them and cursing them out and throwing stuff at them,” he said.
Hakiem Yahmadi, who has worked as a violence prevention specialist locally for years, lost a son to gun violence before dedicating himself to violence prevention. His approach calls for counseling grieving families who have lost loved ones to violent crime, and after-school and summer programs. For Yahmadi, the recent spike in shootings is nothing residents haven’t seen before.
“Everywhere you go now, the gun violence is a big thing. But for years, they [shooters and victims] been gettin’ younger and younger, but everybody overlookin’ it,” said Yahmadi, adding that rises in drug use and poverty rates, not the pandemic, are behind the recent uptick.
“We asked these guys, what do you kill each other for? They don’t know. Something posted on Facebook, something was said, and it’s been going on for generations,” he said, adding that easy access to firearms already in circulation makes getting guns off the streets next to impossible. Even gun buy-back programs have a limited effect, given how easy it is to transport weapons via bus, Amtrak, or car.
“Buying guns today is like going in a corner store buying a bag of potato chips or soda,” said Yahmadi, “They throw all this money out, but it’s like the money is a BandAid on a wound, and the wound gets bigger and bigger.”