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Mass Shootings Rose In The Pandemic, Disproportionately Hurting Black Neighborhoods

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Despite the social distancing, curfews and quarantines, mass shootings actually went up in 2020. According to the Gun Violence Archive, the number rose nearly 50% from 2019. And J. Brian Charles of The Trace writes that these mass shootings took place disproportionately in Black and Brown communities and haven't drawn the same attention as the most recent mass shooting in Georgia, for example. He joins us to talk about his research into why.

Welcome to the program.

J BRIAN CHARLES: Oh, thank you for having me.

CORNISH: First, how do experts define what gets called a mass shooting? And what are some of the other definitions you've come to in the process of this reporting?

CHARLES: So a mass shooting is an incident in which four or more people are injured in one event. For example, a mass shooting can be a scenario where somebody does not know any of the potential victims and walks into a room and/or a place and then fires off their weapon and injures four or more people. A mass shooting can also be a scenario in which somebody is familiar with the people that are the potential victims and still injures four or more people. One is based - the latter example is the one in which someone actually has an existing conflict. The former example is one in which the conflict is not clear prior to the actual shooting.

CORNISH: When you started to do research into this and you found this increasing tally, where were these shootings taking place?

CHARLES: So we looked at several cities across the United States, and our research went through September of 2020, when we published our story. We were already on pace by September to eclipse the number of mass shootings nationwide than we had reached previous years. But if you look at a place like Chicago - they had 36 mass shootings through September 2020 - 31 of those were in majority-Black neighborhoods.

CORNISH: And how did the pandemic affect these figures? We've seen some reports that violent crime is up specifically in some cities, even though overall crime might be down. Can you help me kind of get our arms around that?

CHARLES: There's a couple of things that, I think, a couple of criminologists have pointed to. The first thing is you have this pandemic. You have this disease that is spreading. You don't know how. It's kind of this invisible enemy. And you would get this kind of retreat and this pullback from regular law enforcement going in and communicating with people on the ground face-to-face. They're worried about contracting coronavirus. They're worried about spreading it.

The second thing is - and in communities that are often affected by large amounts of violence, we have kind of non-law enforcement responses to that - street outreach workers. They found it very hard to do their work because they couldn't go do things like go into a home and do a home visit because you can't go in someone's house.

CORNISH: Is there something to be said for isolating and focusing on shootings like the ones we saw in Georgia, which, you know, happened in an area where it was unusual and to victims who are not - air quotes - "typical targets," right? Isn't that sort of the distinction that law enforcement or investigators or the media is drawn to? And should those things be treated differently?

CHARLES: I don't think they should be treated differently because if you're the victim of one of these crimes, it doesn't really matter, right? I think that we have a responsibility to try to get as much information about why our neighbors, our family members, people in other communities, or, you know, people that live in our country are being subjected to high levels of violence. So I think we can do both, and I think that we should do both. And I think we should spend time with all of these things. And I know that there's a natural thing that attracts us to - we always look at the thing that's very different all the time. And sometimes, it's the thing that's the same that shows a pattern of behavior or a pattern of activity that draws us to a larger trend and makes us go, well, why does this keep happening? And that's the real story.

CORNISH: J. Brian Charles, thank you so much for sharing your reporting with us.

CHARLES: Oh, thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.