About 505 people were shot in New York City through May 9, the highest year-to-date number in a decade.
By Troy Closson
A man in Queens was fatally shot in the stomach outside a celebration thrown for his birthday. Another in the Bronx who stopped to check on a stranger’s well-being was struck in the head and torso and died. A 17-year-old was killed near his school in Brooklyn after end-of-day dismissal.
The three were among 170 people shot over the four full weeks just last spring, according to police data. The last time so many people were shot over the same four-week period in New York City was 1997.
The major rise in gun violence in the city began in 2020, after a period in which violent crime dropped to its lowest levels in more than six decades. Now, even as New York City emerges from the pandemic, the spike that began as the virus spread last spring has shown no sign of receding: As of the second weekend in May, the city had recorded 505 shooting victims, the most through that point of any year in the last decade.
Experts say the economic and physical strain of the virus, which disproportionately took lives and jobs from neighborhoods that were already struggling with high levels of gun violence, most likely drove the rise in shootings.
Those factors are not likely to subside soon, criminologists warn, and the spike may persist even as virus cases plummet. That in turn has stoked fears that gun violence will slow the city’s ability to bounce back from its long lockdown.
The cycles of violent retaliation fueled by individual shootings in recent months will be hard to break, said Jeffrey Butts, the director of the research and evaluation center at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
“That kind of motivation does not go away suddenly because the lockdown is over and people are going back to work in their offices,” Dr. Butts said. “That’s my big concern. This could be a generation that we have screwed up for some time. And I don’t know how long it will take to reverse that.”
Other large cities including Los Angeles and Philadelphia also reported jumps in gun violence during the pandemic. Chicago saw 865 shootings by the first weekend of this month with about a third of the population of New York, compared with about 550 in 2019 and 650 in 2020.
Michael LiPetri, the Police Department’s chief of crime control strategies, said in an interview this week that conflicts and retaliation between groups of teenagers and young men continued to fuel much of the gun violence. He estimated that about three-fourths of the shootings contained a nexus to crews, or youth gangs. Marcos Gonzalez Soler, who heads the mayor’s office of criminal justice, placed the total closer to 40 percent and added that unrelated interpersonal conflicts among people who had no prior convictions had contributed heavily.
The majority of shootings have taken place in areas where gun violence occurred before the pandemic. Roughly 37 percent of shootings this year have taken place in Brooklyn, compared with 43 percent in 2020, with much of the conflict located in the central areas of the borough. The Bronx accounts for 31 percent of the shootings.
Experts say pointing out a single reason for their persistence is impossible, and they note that much of the discussions about factors responsible for the shooting spike remain conjecture. Dermot F. Shea, the police commissioner, often places blame on recent statewide criminal justice changes, which he says have made it harder to keep those charged with criminal offenses in jail.
But others emphasize the role of the pandemic in further disrupting life in many of the areas where shootings have risen. The volume of guns in New York and elsewhere, which data suggests rose significantly during the pandemic, has made the spillover of firearms into illegal hands more common, experts add.
“People have been on an emotional roller coaster and totally traumatized by a new existence,” said Erica Ford, the founder of LIFE Camp in the South Jamaica neighborhood of Queens, an organization in the city’s crisis management system that focuses on gun violence prevention and intervention. “When you top all that with poverty, with a lack of resources, an inability to engage in normal activities, it doesn’t come up to ‘Kumbaya, my Lord.’”
Ms. Ford attributed the ongoing rise to a combination of myriad challenges of the past year: joblessness and economic downturn; persistent school absences and challenges logging onto remote classes, along with an absence of after-school activities; and more disputes turning into shootings because of the proliferation of guns over the last year.
And in a city where the virus killed more than 30,000 people, many of them older, thousands of families lost stabilizing matriarchs and patriarchs. “There’s some drastic changes that took place in people’s houses,” Ms. Ford said.
Violent crime traditionally rises in the summer, but last year was particularly alarming as the city recorded 205 shootings in June — the highest for that month since 1996.