by Bill Gibbons —

A leading local health official said to me recently that we have a gun violence epidemic in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bill Gibbons, president, Memphis Shelby Crime Commission; executive director, UofM Public Safety Institute.

Recent figures support his conclusion. Last year, of Memphis’ record 332 homicides, 262 (79 percent) were committed with guns. According to the Memphis Police Department (MPD), Memphis had over 6,400 reported violent incidents involving guns in 2020, an increase of almost 25 percent over 2019. Equally disturbing is that the percentage of all reported violent incidents that involved guns increased to almost 67 percent compared to about 60 percent in 2019.

While the MPD counts specific incidents, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) counts individual offenses. For example, an aggravated assault with three victims is one incident but involves three offenses. In 2020, the TBI’s preliminary figures show over 14,000 reported offenses involving firearms in Memphis, a whopping increase of almost 50 percent over 2019.

Many Memphians complain about hearing gunshots in or near their neighborhoods and with good reason. In 2020, there were over 21,000 reports of shots being fired, with over 2,500 reports of people being hit by gunfire.

In 2014, the Tennessee General Assembly enacted legislation allowing handguns in vehicles without the need for a permit. Reported guns stolen from vehicles skyrocketed. In 2020, the MPD received over 1,300 reports of guns stolen from vehicles – over half of all reports of stolen guns.

As Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland has noted, gun violence is our number one challenge. So, what can we do?

First, we need to win the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Memphis and other major cities have seen dramatic increases in homicides and other violent crimes during the pandemic, possibly attributable to increased stress among family members, friends, and acquaintances. (The increases appear to be in categories where the perpetrators and victims often know each other, such as murders and aggravated assaults. Reported robberies – where the victims are normally strangers – declined in 2020.) In addition, the pandemic has hampered proactive policing.

Winning the COVID-19 pandemic battle might bring us back to a “normal” level of violent crime. Even during normal times, though, Memphis had one of the highest gun violence rates in the nation. Our challenge will remain after the pandemic.

There are proven practices that can make a serious dent in our level of gun violence in a fairly short period of time.

Focused deterrence is one of those proven practices if implemented correctly and at a significant enough scale. It involves sending a clear message to certain individuals responsible directly or indirectly for a significant part of violent crime: If you are willing to change your behavior, we will help you. If you are unwilling to change and continue down a path of violence, we will hold you accountable. Under District Attorney Amy Weirich’s leadership, we have tried this carrot and stick approach on a pilot basis, with plans to begin scaling it up this year.

A significant part of gun violence involves acts of retaliation. We need more resources for intervention efforts by trained individuals in our hospitals, schools, and neighborhoods. Mayor Strickland is taking the lead in expanding intervention efforts.

We need an evidence-based system of assessing what’s going on in a young person’s life and family life upon the very first encounter with law enforcement, followed by effective cognitive behavioral therapy where appropriate. County and city officials are both committed to this approach, but it will take resources.

Smart, data-driven deployment of police resources is a proven approach to reducing violence. Both the MPD and the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department are committed to this approach, but the current shortage of officers makes it a challenge.

Possibly the most powerful force against gun violence is for all of us to stand up and speak out.  Since the very successful Unity Walk Against Gun Violence last November, over 20 groups have now come together to continue the Unity Walks. The next one is scheduled for Saturday, February 27 at 10 a.m., beginning and ending at Hillcrest High School in Whitehaven. It will be another opportunity for Memphians from all walks of life to send a clear message that our community is fed up with gun violence.

We have far too many victims of gun violence. We must reduce the number of victims and have a sense of urgency in tackling the gun violence epidemic. There is no time to waste.

(Bill Gibbons serves as president of the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission and executive director of the UofM Public Safety Institute.)