In 1993 I was living in a house in Kenyon Street in the Mount Pleasant neighbourhood of Washington DC when a gunman started shooting pedestrians from his car nearby. Over an eight-week period, he killed four people and seriously wounded five others in 14 attacks in a 10-block area encompassing partly gentrified Mount Pleasant and much poorer Columbia Heights.
The police paid little attention initially because the first person to be seriously wounded was a young black male in Columbia Heights. The police dismissed this as a “normal” crime for the area, stemming from disputes over control of the local drugs trade.
Only when the killer started shooting people in the leafy streets of Mount Pleasant did the police move massively but ineffectually to try to find him – or so they said, though I never saw many police where I lived.
The serial killer was only caught when an off-duty policeman getting his car washed saw a car run a red light and pursued it. When the driver stopped, the policeman noticed a shotgun in the back seat of his car which turned out to have been recently used to kill a woman.
Inability of the police
The shooter was named as James E Swann Jr, who had heard voices telling him to kill people in this part of Washington and was later found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity and confined to a psychiatric hospital.
I went to where Swann had once lived on the other side of Washington and asked his former neighbours if they had noticed anything strange about him. One told me that “he would go into the woods with his shotgun and once I heard him shout ‘I’ll kill you, I’ll kill you all,’ but I thought he was talking about squirrels.”
I was struck by the inability of the DC police to keep people safe and their failure in poor black areas even to try to do so. The killings reinforced my sense America was a peculiarly violent country for complex reasons of which the availability of guns was only one.
I had been thinking a lot about the American propensity for violence long before Swann targeted our neighbourhood because the murder rate in Washington had peaked in 1991 with 482 murders in a city of 600,000 inhabitants. The main cause for the surge in killings appeared to be territorial disputes between local drugs bosses. The sites of the killings were tightly bunched around places where drugs were sold.
But this raised the question of why the people running the drugs trade in Washington so swiftly resorted to extreme violence, more frequently than they did in comparable cities. One intriguing answer was given to me by a criminologist named William Chambliss who argued that “the problem is that the DC police are not corrupt enough. In other cities where the drug trade is rife but the police corrupt, a drug dealer eliminates competitors intruding on his territory by calling the local precinct and getting the police to arrest him.”
But the DC police were insufficiently corrupt to make such cosy and remunerative arrangements, so the drug bosses had no alternative but to defend their territory by sending out gunmen to murder ambitious rivals.
These two very different stories emphasise the complicated causes of gun violence in America which vary markedly from the simple-minded explanation that it is the wide availability of firearms that is at the heart of the problem. Many observers, have expressed this view with furious sincerity since the murder this week of 19 children and two teachers in a school in Uvalde, Texas.
Critics of America’s failure to restrict gun ownership make the unanswerable point that enraged or deranged individuals can easily purchase enough firepower to carry out a massacre. This is something they could not do in other advanced countries.
Howls of protest
Yet one certainty about these howls of protest over the sale of guns in America is that they will achieve nothing. It is not only because of the well-funded opposition of pro-gun lobbyists like the National Rifle Association, but because voters in many states, and not just in the Republican South, will vote down any politician hinting at the regulation of gun sales.
One Republican hopeful who had been a military helicopter pilot in the Middle East, had his political prospects blasted when he was accused of having made a speech long ago that could be interpreted as anti-gun, though he protested unavailingly that he had been speaking about guns in Somalia.
There are, in fact, prohibitions including heavy prison terms for the carrying of illegal or concealed weapons in many mostly Democrat-controlled states. But the evidence is that this does not do much good since there are already 400 million firearms held by 330 million Americans. It is too late to turn off the tap and many Democrats are now backing away a little from fruitlessly advocating gun control legislation to demand more police focus on illegal gun possession. An abiding American myth on all sides of the political divide is that they can punish their way out of violence.
Panaceas like this which promise solutions to complex problems are attractive to politicians, but there is little sign that they work. They may have a negative impact by side-lining more limited but practical reforms.
A fascinating report called “The 100 Shootings Review Committee Report” about gun crime in Philadelphia, where there were 559 homicides in 2021, gives a highly informed account of the realities of gun crime. The reforming District Attorney Larry Krasner argues that “focusing so many resources on removing guns from the street while a constant supply of new guns is available is unlikely to stop gun violence”.
Over 20 years between 1999 and 2019, 200 guns were sold every day in Philadelphia and 1,600 in Pennsylvania. Krasner says that obsession with seeking illegally held guns prevents the successful investigation of killings and woundings by guns. He proposes instead clearing up more shooting cases, protecting witnesses and getting police officers, witnesses and victims to turn up in court. At the moment, four-fifths of non-fatal shootings in Philadelphia are unsolved.
Gun violence in America is rooted in centuries-old racial and cultural confrontations. Differing beliefs on guns, abortion, religion, race, civil rights and almost everything else slot easily into place on either side of this great divide. The slaughter of the children in Uvalde is only the latest proof of the truth of the old saying that “violence is as American as cherry pie”.
My friend Dervla Murphy died in her home town of Lismore in county Waterford in Ireland last Sunday. She had been ill but it still came as a shock as we had been talking on the phone three or four weeks earlier and she had sounded as engaged with current events as ever.
Our conversations every few weeks were mostly about political developments on which we were usually in agreement, but she was interesting and intelligent on every issue. The same was true of her books that remain as fresh as when they were written. I would particularly recommend A Place Apart, her book on Northern Ireland and I reread recently her first book, Full Tilt, an account of her bicycle ride through the Balkans and Middle East, and her memoir Wheels within Wheels.