Spiking Gun Violence May Be Fueled by the Pandemic, Experts Say

Gun violence is skyrocketing in Philadelphia in 2020, with aggravated assaults with a gun and homicides up more than 25%, in contrast to dips in other violent crimes. Experts believe the pandemic may be compounding long-known societal problems.

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Sean Smith's mother came downstairs to answer the front door of her Frankford home as someone furiously rang the doorbell a few times.

It was 9 p.m. on Monday and she was already in bed, Smith said.

"She came down and there was a guy standing out in front of the door, a young guy, about 17," Smith said, recounting what his mother told him. The encounter also was captured on a surveillance camera on the porch of the house a few blocks from Frankford Transportation Center in Northeast Philadelphia. "She said, 'Can I help you?'"

The man asked if Smith's nephew, Shawn, was home. When Smith's mother told him that Shawn was not home, the man demanded $190 that he said he was owed.

"My mother said, 'Well, I don't have that, and I don't appreciate you ringing my doorbell this late,'" Smith said. "Everything is on the doorbell camera. The guy continued to mouth off and she said, 'Well, you're not getting the money.' This guy wipes his fingerprint off the bell. I saw this, so I know it was all pre-meditated. I’m like, I know about street guys, he could have shot her in the head."

Instead, Smith said, the man walked away. But moments later, he returned and fired four shots into the front of the woman's home and another two bullets into the front upstairs bedroom.

A gunman fired as many as 11 shots into a home on Penn Street in the Frankford section of Philadelphia on Monday, Aug. 10. The woman who owns the home spoke with NBC10 reporter Aaron Baskerville about the harrowing event.

No arrests have been made yet, police said. The shooting came on the heels of a weekend in Philadelphia when several people were shot, including two 11-year-olds.

"It’s crazy what these guys doing with the guns, and they keep putting them out and putting them out and putting them out," Smith said. "We have a bunch of gun lovers now."

Philadelphia's gun violence is raging in 2020, with aggravated assaults by gun and homicides up more than 25% each over 2019 levels. Those are climbing at a time when other violent crime categories are falling. Philadelphia is not alone: Other American cities are experiencing more shootings at a time when other types of crime are decreasing.

A Temple University policy expert and the city's top official for violence prevention believe the COVID-19 pandemic could be compounding a gun violence epidemic that has been getting worse in recent years.

"The pandemic has affected some of our violence prevention techniques," Deputy Managing Director Vanessa Garrett Harley said of community intervention workers' efforts in the neighborhoods. "Being in line with guidelines with the CDC and the state makes this work much more difficult. Having to be six feet from somebody, their work has had to adjust for safety for themselves and for the community members. You’re not going inside anybody’s house right now, and you have to be very careful with what you’re saying in these very private conversations."

Harley, who oversees Philadelphia's Office of Violence Prevention, said field workers are experts at talking with young people most likely to be involved in gun violence and preventing shootings before they happen. Their work has been severely hampered by COVID-19.

"We're coming up with creative ways to get back out there into the neighborhoods," Harley said. "How can we do it and be in alignment with the social distancing guidelines?"

Temple University gun policy researcher Jason Gravel said the prominence of social media in people's lives could also be playing a role in the rise of shootings at a time when other types of crime are falling.

In a monthslong halt to a majority of face-to-face interactions because of the pandemic, social media can perpetuate grievances and grudges, Gravel said. It can also help pinpoint locations of potential victims.

"COVID-19 doesn’t reduce the ability of people to talk on social media, and it also doesn’t decrease the ability of people knowing where their targets are," Gravel said.

Still, Gravel said, gun violence research and determining exact causes for gun violence trends remains hampered by the lack of laws governing firearms.

"These are things that if we had more data, we could be more certain in an association or lack there of," he said.

City Council held two days of hearings this week to discuss the gun violence epidemic. Top Philadelphia police officials blamed their department's low homicide clearance rate -- the percent of cases with an arrest -- and a diversion of resources to covering the ongoing protests over police brutality and to working through COVID-19.

Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw has vowed to fix her department's falling clearance rate, which has fallen below 60% in recent years. She also has asked to have an analyst placed full-time in the District Attorney's office.

Harley said a new $1.25 million program, called Group Violence Intervention, is beginning this month after delays because of COVID-19. GVI is designed to bring together a few dozen young people who are identified by the Office of Violence Prevention and law enforcement, and "show them an alternative" to violence.

Because of the pandemic, the group interventions will be individual for the foreseeable future.

Harley called the adjusted approach "custom notification."

District Attorney Larry Krasner has often linked Philadelphia's poverty rate, which is the highest among American big cities, to the crime rate. A map posted by his office Wednesday shows how neighborhoods with higher poverty also have greater numbers of violent crime incidents. (That map, seen below, shows shootings in red and poverty rate in purple.)

In Frankford, Sean Smith says the attack on his mother's house is frustrating because the shooter remains on the loose days later.

"This guy is still out there," Smith said. "We have to be organized. My mother has been through the roughest times, but she was never shot at. Now, her house is getting shot up."

Bullets in a home in Philadelphia
Provided by Sean Smith
A gunman fired as many as 11 bullets at a house in the Frankford section of Philadelphia, Monday, Aug. 10, 2020. Six bullets hit the front door and bedroom windows.
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