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Richmond Gun Deaths Continue to Rise After Deadly 2020

The City of Richmond saw an increase in shooting deaths in 2020, and the first half of 2021 has seen a continued rise. Experts attribute that to a national trend driven by economic factors. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

The City of Richmond has reported 31 homicides so far this year, a pace that tops a deadly 2020 and echoes state and national trends.

Local and national experts say the factors behind the rise are complicated, but broadly say the pandemic and the economic and personal turbulence that it wrought -- and structural inequities it surfaced -- are key drivers. 

The same trend does not apply to other levels of crime; reported rapes and property crimes dipped in Richmond since last year, while aggravated assaults are up 30%. Some, including Police Chief Gerald Smith, expect the homicide trend to change and 2020 to be seen as an “asterisk year.”

“It’s not really a fair comparison because that year had an effect on so many things,” Smith said in a press conference last month

Richmond’s homicide rate isn’t what it was in 1997, when the city’s figures topped the U.S. But the numbers are slowly climbing, reaching 66 deaths last year. Virginia’s homicide rate has also risen. Guns played a role in the vast majority of deaths, and Black men were overwhelmingly the victims. 

The July Fourth weekend was especially deadly in the region, with ten people, including one girl, killed. 

Torey Edmunds, a community outreach expert at VCU Health who focuses on gun violence, said she witnessed the aftermath of one shooting first hand while she was driving in the East End with her daughter.

“You originally think the noise is firecrackers until you see the person run out with a gun in their hand,” Edmunds said. “Next thing you know, you see the [police] tape.”

Edmunds is a proud, lifelong resident of the neighborhood who has helped research the issue for nearly two decades with VCU’s Department of Family Medicine and Population Health with grant funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She said the neighborhood has experienced what she said were positive changes since the violence of the ‘90s, including increased home ownership and a local grocery store.

But she said the pandemic highlighted the lack of investment in economic and social opportunities in certain communities.

“If you don’t have transportation and the financial means to find good quality, out-of-school time, activities for our young people are very limited,” Edmunds said. “Can we allow our young people to go into a setting where maybe they can use dance, language, drama to kind of help express what they’re feeling or what they may not be able to express normally?” 

Edmunds called on the General Assembly to set aside some of the $4.3 billion in federal aid the state will receive for those investments.

“I hope that we don’t just use those dollars for suppression and enforcement -- that we do put a fair share in prevention,” she said.

Cities across the country have seen a spike in homicides. On Tuesday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency after 51 people were shot last weekend. 

Yasser Payne, a sociologist at the University of Delaware who studies community violence and criminal justice, said the economic and social instability caused by the pandemic had ripple effects in already vulnerable communities. Jobs became more scarce, drug supplies became more constricted, and people became more desperate, according to Payne. Even before the pandemic, Payne spoke to many men in his ethnographic work in Wilmington and Harlem who were couchsurfing or sleeping in cars, earning $15 to $20 a day.

“People are poor, they’re trying to hustle how they can, and conflict is often solved by gun violence,” he said.

The solution was straightforward to Payne: “We don’t know anything that works better than a job. Or economic opportunity. Or Black reparations.” 

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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