Innocent bystanders are getting shot in troubling numbers in the Twin Cities.
In the past three years, shootouts in crowded gatherings — often bustling public businesses like bars — have injured more than 60 people in the metro, and the vast majority of them appear to be unconnected to the gunmen, according to a St. Paul Pioneer Press compilation of shootings.
These bystanders are caught in a crossfire or hit by stray bullets in a specific sub-category of mass shootings: The victims aren’t targeted by a shooter intent on causing mass casualties; they’re collateral damage in personal disputes that erupt in gunfire in crowded places.
The phenomenon was tragically underscored a week ago, when Marquisha D. Wiley, 27, was killed during a shootout inside the crowded Seventh Street Truck Park bar in St. Paul. The early Sunday, Oct. 10, shooting also left 15 injured. Those included the men allegedly involved in a private dispute — one accused the other of abusing a female relative — but also numerous people who had nothing to do with it, leaving scars both physical and psychological for those there, and eroding a sense of safety for a metro area already on edge amid a crime wave and more than a year of jitters arising from the killing of George Floyd.
Why is this happening?
Experts say the answer is simple, and historians who study crime say we’ve likely been here before.
More people carrying guns
“The real bottom line, which isn’t rocket science, is that too many people are too quick to pick up guns to solve their disputes,” said professor James Densley, who chairs the School of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice at Metropolitan State University.
In public places today, more people appear to be carrying guns — both legally and illegally — said Densley, who is a co-founder of the Violence Project, which tracks mass shootings across the nation, and a longtime expert on street violence in cities.
What’s striking, Densley said, is how the fear of violence can beget more violence.
“When you ask people why do they carry guns in public, the answer inevitably is for protection,” he said. “The more gun violence occurs, the more shootings in public spaces, the more people feel the need to protect themselves. And it becomes a cycle.”
Densley acknowledges that no one knows for certain that, in fact, more people are walking around with guns on them. There’s no way to track that directly. But there are numerous indications that that’s exactly what’s happening.
Even though firearms sales in 2021 are down from the record-breaking 2020 rates, Americans are still in the midst of a decades-long arming of ourselves, with overall sales rates up about 64 percent from 1990.
Driving the recent increases in gun sales: First-time gun owners. In a survey of gun retailers and examination of federal background checks for gun sales, the National Shooting Sports Foundation — the gun industry’s lobbying group — reported that the first six months of this year saw an estimated 3.2 million people buy their first firearm.
While first-time gun owners might be less experienced in handling a firearm, they’re also less experienced in securing it, Densley said, citing how legally purchased guns can make it into the illegal market.
Indeed, police in Minnesota have been seizing more guns at a steady clip each year for a number of years.
According to gun-seizure data from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — a rough index for illegal guns — 4,112 firearms were seized by Minnesota police in 2019, the most recent year for which there is data. In 2015, that figure was 2,780. In 2010, it was 2,450. Minneapolis and St. Paul each saw similarly corresponding increases.
While a sidearm might be affectionately called a “peacemaker,” studies have shown they’re more likely the opposite.
Starting with a seminal study in 1967, psychologists have identified a phenomenon — not universally accepted for all contexts but well acknowledged — called “the weapons effect.”
In a nutshell, it’s this: Introduce a weapon, especially a gun, into a tense situation between two people, and it gets more tense; the mere presence of a gun can escalate many disagreements.
“I might be carrying the gun just to signify that they don’t want you to mess with me, but in reality, it changes everything,” Densley said. “These guns, when they’re present, they change the environment. They change people’s behavior. … The reality is that far too many people are turning to guns to solve their disputes. The bigger question is why. How did we get to this point in society?”
But ... why?
A number of experts who study crime contacted for this story cited the work of Gary LaFree, currently a professor at the University of Maryland’s Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice. In 1998, he authored a study called “Losing Legitimacy” that argued that numerous American crime waves throughout history can be traced to a combination of factors that revolved around people losing faith in their elected officials and losing trust in major institutions.
“The classic case was the crime boom that started in about 1961 and peaked at the end of the crack cocaine epidemic in 1991,” LaFree said in an interview. “We saw homicides about triple, robberies quadrupled, and burglaries quintupled. The ’60s were a classic example of every American institution being severely critiqued.”
The 60s … civil rights, counter-culture and an anti-war movement that became tied to various attacks against the establishment. Sound familiar?
LaFree said Minnesota in particular has seen an extra-sharp effect of what he described as a “crisis of legitimacy” because Floyd was killed here, by one of our police officers, and the ensuing demonstrations spawned violence that led to our neighborhoods and businesses being the scenes of some of the most sustained violence across the country.
It’s not just Floyd’s killing, either, but the combination of several police killings here that generated outrage, including the killings of Philando Castile, Justine Ruszczyk Damond and Daunte Wright. LaFree and other experts said such events — whether justified or not — can lead to a loss of faith in police.
‘Ferguson effect’ and more
A spike in shootings following a questionable high-profile killing, especially of a Black man, has become increasingly observed by criminologists. It’s often known as “the Ferguson effect” — although those studying the matter say it’s not solely the idea of police reluctant to pursue violent suspects, but also a lack of witnesses calling or cooperating with police. Bottom line: Violent cycles break out and continue.
But there’s another lack of confidence that emerges: Those of business owners, bystanders and, yes, white people. The killing of Damond, for example — a white woman shot by a cop after calling police to report an assault — and the destruction of property following riots, arson and looting can erode confidence across a whole swath of demographics.
“What do you do if you can’t call police? Sociologists call it self-help,” LaFree said. “You take matters into your own hands. What lack of legitimacy does is it ratchets up this vigilante spirit.”
Cast that on top of a nation fractured along divisive political messages — including lack of confidence in the elections system by supporters of former President Donald Trump, who lost to President Joe Biden. (Several experts noted that it doesn’t matter whether a particular shooting was justified — or whether there is any actual evidence that the election wasn’t accurate; what matters is the perception people have.)
“Political instability matters,” said professor Randolph Roth of Ohio State University’s Criminal Justice Research Center. Roth, the author of “American Homicide,” specializes in tracking crime booms and busts across history.
“When we start having deadly riots, that’s often a tell for political instability, and you can really map out the homicide rate historically through the 19th century by looking at rises and falls of the number of riots in which people were killed. You see killings of unrelated adults on the rise.”
“Unrelated adults.” In other words, already-anxious people who have a dispute take their anger out — with guns — outside the home, in places where strangers gather, and the strangers get caught in the crossfire.
And, of course, there’s a pandemic right now, which has shaken the faith of some in a host of institutions, from public health to the economic supply chain.
The last time that happened in America was the “Spanish flu” pandemic of 1918, when Americans were disillusioned by the horrors of World War I, polarized by the “first red scare” that a Bolshevik-style revolution was coming, and grappling with a wave of Black Americans moving north, which led to racial violence.
“A lot of people don’t realize this,” said Roth, “but there was a huge homicide spike in 1919, the second year of pandemic. You always have to be careful of calling two examples a ‘pattern,’ but it’s interesting to see the similarities. There’s a possibility of something there.”