'Devastating': Mass shootings obscure daily U.S. gun toll
Cameron Taylor was watching an illegal street race that had attracted hundreds to an intersection in Portland, Oregon, but decided to leave as the crowd got increasingly unruly. Moments later, gunfire erupted and Taylor was hit by a stray bullet as he and a friend headed to their car.
Police, who were overwhelmed with 911 calls about other shootings, couldn’t control multiple street takeovers in the city that night and had trouble finding the victims of three shootings that occurred during the chaos.
“His friend who was with him put him in the car and drove him out to get him to the hospital, but he was not able to make it and that friend called his parents” to say Taylor was dead, family friend Erin Russell told The Associated Press.
Taylor, 20, died Sunday the same day that four high-profile, public shooting rampages in Bend, Oregon, Phoenix, Detroit and Houston drew national headlines. His slaying went largely unnoticed amid the daily toll of gun violence that has come to define Portland and a number of other American cities since the pandemic.
Homicide rates appear to be dropping in some major U.S. cities, such as New York and Chicago, but in others killings are on the rise, particularly from guns. In Portland, the homicide rate surged 207% since 2019 and there have been more than 800 shootings so far this year. In Phoenix, police Chief Jeri Williams said this week the gun violence was the worst she’d seen in 33 years on the job.
“How many more officers have to be shot? How many more community members have to be killed before those in our community take a stand? This is not only a Phoenix police issue, this is a community issue,” she said after a weekend that tallied 17 shootings and 11 homicides citywide.
Now, police are on edge heading into Labor Day weekend, with its traditional end-of-summer festivities, and some are adding extra patrols as they brace for more potential violence.
In Portland, police busy with three killings and nine non-fatal shootings in 48 hours couldn’t control three illegal street races last weekend that attracted hundreds and shut down major intersections for hours. In Houston, the day after a gunman shot five neighbors, killing three, another man shot two sisters before killing himself.
In the past two weeks, authorities in Phoenix have confiscated 711 guns and made 525 gun-related arrests as part of a targeted crackdown. Nearly 90% of homicides there this year were by gun, police said. In Detroit, where a man is accused of shooting three people at random on city streets last weekend, authorities are also cracking down on gun violence in high-crime neighborhoods through Labor Day.
“Let’s stop talking about our inability to respond to crime in the community. Let’s stop advertising to criminals that they’re going to get away with it,” Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said, using an expletive at a City Council meeting this week after police Chief Chuck Lovell once more asked for more officers.
“I think we should stop using the messaging at every turn, that the reason we can’t help our citizens with basic criminal justice issues is because we don’t have the personnel,” Wheeler said. “We’ve got to figure out better ways to address this crisis.”
Last weekend’s rampages — which included a heavily armed assailant who stormed a central Oregon supermarket, random shootings on Detroit streets and a Phoenix man who opened fire while wearing body armor — were shocking and scary, but they aren’t representative of the broader toll gun violence is taking on American society, experts said.
Victims killed in mass shootings make up about 1% of all those killed in gun homicides nationwide, despite headlines that instill fear in many Americans, said James Fox, a professor at Northeastern University who has created a database of mass killings stretching back to 2006 with The Associated Press and USA Today.
All four shootings last weekend didn’t even meet the database’s definition of a mass killing — four or more people, excluding the assailant, killed in a 24-hour period — but they nonetheless sowed fear because of the random nature of the violence, he added.
“Those don’t tend to make news. They don’t tend to scare people because people say, ‘Well, that’s not my family,” Fox said. “We have as many as 20,000 gun homicides a year, and most of those are one victim. Sometimes two, sometimes three, (but) rarely four or more.”
The pandemic and the social unrest it caused has also played a role. Eight million Americans became first-time gun owners between 2019 and 2021, said Jeffrey Butts, director of the research and evaluation center for the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at City University of New York.
“We already had 400 million guns in circulation. So when you bump that up and include a lot of first-timers in the population, you get accidents, you get precipitous behavior, you get people reacting to small insults and conflicts with their guns because they’re in their pocket now,” he said.
Meanwhile Taylor’s friends and family mourn his death in Portland.
The car aficionado and beloved big brother who loved barbecues and spending time with his family was “at the wrong place at the wrong time,” Russell said.
“He has a lot of friends and a lot of family who love him dearly, and this is a devastating loss.”