US City Turns to Science to Help Reduce Gun Violence

04 September 2023

"That's where I got shot," said Rashaad Woods, pointing toward a small store in the city of Knoxville in the state of Tennessee. Nearby are a nightclub where some people were shot and killed and a church with bullet holes in the walls.

"There was a point in time I wasn't comfortable standing here," said Kodi Mills. "But that time is passing."

The two men work for Turn Up Knox, a community-based organization that began operating in July of 2022. It mentors children and teenagers on how to prevent conflicts from becoming violent. The project is a central part of city efforts to use research-based methods to reduce gun violence.

Knoxville Deputy Police Chief Tony Willis talks with Terry Walker-Smith after a meeting of the Violence Reduction Leadership Committee on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)
Knoxville Deputy Police Chief Tony Willis talks with Terry Walker-Smith after a meeting of the Violence Reduction Leadership Committee on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

Turn Up Knox began operating after a sharp rise in shooting deaths in Knoxville. The larger city effort to reduce gun violence includes policy changes in policing and other action.

However, it does not depend on restrictions to gun ownership. That was important, since Tennessee has repeatedly moved to loosen gun restrictions.

In 2021, Tennessee started letting people carry handguns in the open or hidden, without a permit. This year, the minimum age for carrying handguns dropped to 18.

Turning to research for answers

Indya Kincannon is the city's mayor.

"I wanted to be able to fix it," she said of the rising gun violence.

As the gun violence goes up in the United States, so has research into how to stop it. Researchers estimate there were more than 48,000 gun deaths last year, with gun-related killings and suicide rates not seen since the early 1990s.

Gun-related incidents are now the leading cause of death among American children and teenagers.

Now, researchers say they know more about which public health strategies help reduce gun violence and which ones do not.

A report from the non-profit research group Rand Corporation points to policies that it found help reduce gun violence. These steps include laws that permit the charging of adults who let children have unsupervised access to guns. The researchers say strong background checks on gun purchasers also helps reduce gun violence. Another helpful measure involves banning guns from people with a legal record of family violence, Rand reported.

The RAND report also noted policies that do not help reduce gun violence. For example, it said concealed carry laws increase gun killings, as do gun buyback programs.

East Knoxville and trusting police

About 16 percent of Knoxville's population is Black and about 40 percent of that group is very poor. Many of them live in East Knoxville, where the firearm violence has greatly increased.

Like other American cities, violence increased in Knoxville during the COVID-19 pandemic. Before the pandemic, there were around 20 shooting deaths per year. The number rose to 38 in 2020 and grew again to 41 in 2021.

As shootings increased, Kincannon, the city's mayor, looked to ideas by Thomas Abt, a crime researcher at the University of Maryland. His plan includes having police and community organizations work closely together.

Abt's Center for the Study and Practice of Violence Reduction at the University of Maryland worked with an outside researcher to study Knoxville's violent crime.

The study contained a few surprises, said Knoxville Deputy Police Chief Tony Willis.

Just 12 percent of killings by gun were related to organized criminal groups alone. That suggests many of the shootings only involved personal disagreements.

The city's plan centered first on areas in East Knoxville with high rates of gun violence. The effort involves church leaders and community organizations. It also included a new police chief, an investigative division centered on homicides and shootings, and officers who work mostly in areas with many shootings.

A goal is to increase public trust in law enforcement, which had been low.

"We would have someone get killed in broad daylight, with a lot of witnesses, but no one wanted to talk," Kincannon said. "That means we need more partnership in the community, to build trust."

That is where Turn Up Knox is expected to help. It involves ex-offenders, victims and other community members assisting. They help identify those most likely to be shot or to become shooters. They also mentor teenagers and operate a lawn service that gives jobs to kids. And, they teach families how to settle conflicts and deal with shooting events.

Sometimes, when someone is in danger of becoming the victim of a revenge shooting, Turn Up Knox gives the person a bus ticket to leave town for a few days.

However, some experts say programs built around Thomas Abt's ideas do not deal with enough of the problem. They note that the programs do not deal with suicide by gun nor the issue of poverty as a risk for gun violence.

Charlene Roberts' 25-year-old daughter, Jessie, was shot and killed in 2019 while sitting in a car. Her son Kevin, 33, was killed in 2021 in gunfire at a birthday party.

She is now raising Jessie's son, Princeton. She says he is strong but that he has also changed.

"He always had the biggest smile, just like his mother," she said. "It breaks my heart. He fakes a smile now. He don't have that smile anymore."

I'm Andrew Smith. And I'm Dorothy Gundy.

Mike Stobbe reported this story for The Associated Press. Andrew Smith adapted the story for Learning English.


Words in This Story

nightclub -n. an indoor social gathering place with music and dancing or other entertainment

comfortable -adj. feeling relaxed and at ease

access -v. to reach or get something or be someplace

conceal -v. to hide something

lawn -n. an area of cut grass, typically in the yard's of people's homes

revenge -n. an action in retaliation against a perceived ethically wrong action done against oneself or others

fake -v. to pretend to do something but not really do it