Residents of violence-plagued D.C. neighborhood feel largely ignored in gun control debate

People who lost loved ones to gun violence gather at Life After Homicide ministry at Holy Christian House in the Capitol View neighborhood of Washington D.C., to discuss ways to prevent more homicides in their area. (Whitney Shefte/The Washington Post)

The gun debate taking place on Capitol Hill has been filled with measured questions on the meaning of the Second Amendment and remembrances of innocents lost in suburban mass shootings. It is a conversation largely swept clean of the sort of gritty trauma that too often marks the streets of Capitol View in Northeast Washington.

Here, in the shadow of this tree-lined neighborhood of World War II-era brick homes and apartment buildings, which was named for its panoramic view of the U.S. Capitol, 27-year-old Dominic Davis was shot to death on a January morning a block from Drew Elementary School. His was the first shooting death of the year in Washington, where the homicide rate continues to fall but gun violence remains endemic in some neighborhoods. On Monday, 13 people were wounded in a drive-by shooting several miles north of Drew.

“They shoot and don’t ask questions,” said Saybo Williams, 19, whose older brother Jerry was shot and killed last summer in Capitol View.

Many residents of the neighborhood say it came as no surprise that America’s political system swung into action after the December mass killings at an elementary school in mostly white, middle-class Newtown, Conn. But the current political wrangling on the Hill has just served to underscore residents’ suspicions that Americans as a whole undervalue the lives lost to gun violence in inner-city neighborhoods such as theirs.

The focus on suburban shootings at the hands of unstable men armed with assault weapons also fails to capture the big picture of gun violence in America. Handguns are the weapons of choice in about 90 percent of gun crimes, with assault weapons used in about 8 percent. And most gun violence occurs in urban communities such as Capitol View and the North Capitol Street area, where Monday’s shootings took place.

Twenty-six people died in Sandy Hook Elementary. In the District’s Sixth Police District, an area of fewer than 10 square miles that encompasses Capitol View, 19 lives were lost to gun violence last year and 55 people were wounded in shootings. The year before that, 22 people were killed and 35 were wounded. Eighty-eight lives were lost in the city last year, and the Sixth Police District consistently ranks first or second in the running homicide toll.

In the months after the Newtown tragedy, shock and grief have given way to a feeling of frustration here as gun laws are debated on the Hill, just a few miles away yet also remote.

About 96 percent of the residents of Capitol View and the area around it in the District’s Ward 7 are black. Nearly a quarter of the population is younger than 18, and almost half live in poverty, according to census figures. The median household income is $38,500, compared with $61,835 for the city overall. The unemployment rate is the second-highest among the city’s wards, conservatively estimated at 11 percent, compared with 6.7 percent for the District as a whole.

The demographics of Capitol View and the surrounding community, especially the high poverty and unemployment rates, mirror those found in urban neighborhoods nationally where gun violence is prevalent. Fixing these and other problems will require more than a ban on assault weapons or more thorough background checks, crime experts and Capitol View residents say.

“Policymakers don’t live in communities like ours,” said Greg Stewart, a 46-year-old real estate agent who is the chairman of the area’s neighborhood commission. “Their friends, their families, they live in suburbs. The community of Sandy Hook — that is more like a place they would live. They are removed from the inner city.”

‘Sick and tired’

Although the horror surrounding Newtown and other suburban massacres has dominated the conversation, cities have not been completely overlooked in the debate. Since the Connecticut shooting, President Obama has brought up the everyday gun violence on street corners in Chicago and other cities repeatedly and made clear that it is a driving factor in White House decision making.

The president is pressuring Congress to enact tougher gun laws, including requiring criminal background checks for all gun sales, allocating funds to hire more police officers and instituting a federal gun-trafficking statute. The background check bill could be the most vital to cities, said Robert Contee, commander of the police district that encompasses Capitol View.

“Will it stop every crime of violence? No. But we do know . . . if we don’t do anything, we will keep getting the same results,” he said.

Studies of gun violence in cities with endemic gun crime show that most of it is at least superficially related to gangs and drugs, according to research by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF). That has been the story of Capitol View, which became caught up in the surge of crime and gun violence that accompanied the height of the crack epidemic in the District during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“I can’t count on my hands the number of kids who used to be on that corner that are now dead,” Richard Hamilton, 74, a longtime resident, said one afternoon as he pulled his car away from 53rd Street NE and East Capitol Street.

He and other residents walked these streets in the early 1990s, holding three-hour-long evening marches intended to get drug dealers off them. For that brief time, the violence was quelled.

“Afterward, they came right back out,” said Hamilton, a retired D.C. homicide detective who operates a security firm in the area.

Most gun crimes in and around Capitol View have received little media attention, but one shooting made national headlines. In June 1999, Helen Foster-El, a 55-year-old grandmother and a resident of the East Capitol Dwellings housing complex, was slain while trying to shield children from a gun battle. The District government’s lawyers later brought a lawsuit against gun manufacturers and distributors on behalf of Foster-El and other victims of gun violence. The suit, which sought millions of dollars in damages, lost.

Although Foster-El’s death represented a low point for the community, it also spurred action. Through a federal program called Hope VI, East Capitol Dwellings, which was once the city’s largest housing complex and ran along blocks of East Capitol Street and Southern Avenue, was demolished. It was replaced with Capitol Gateway, a tidy community of cookie-cutter $300,000 townhouses and single-family houses.

“It is much more quiet,” said Hamilton, who led the board of the area’s community development corporation for 27 years. “They just made a complete sweep. The drug dealers used to hang out right here, and now you don’t see them.”

Hamilton credits the lower slaying rate in Capitol View’s police district to redevelopment. (In the city as a whole, homicides dropped from 472 in 1990 to 242 in 2000 — and down to 88 last year.) Along with the new housing, the Marshall Heights Community Development Organization tackled some of the social problems in Ward 7, holding high school-diploma-equivalency and literacy courses and buying a strip mall to encourage business growth.

The police department has also tried new tactics, Contee said. After five men were gunned down in broad daylight in 2009, the department focused intensely on Clay Terrace, a housing complex in the Capitol View area. Two summers ago, the gun-recovery unit targeted illegal weapons. Plainclothes officers kept track of residents with known criminal histories. But they also took aim at blight, noting broken lights, the lack of hoops on the basketball court and weeds on the playground. Government agencies then fixed the problems. Crime, including gun deaths, dropped in half during the three months of intense policing, a tack replicated each summer, he said.

Officers also have built more trust than they had during the time of Foster-El’s death. Contee receives anonymous text messages from residents when they hear gunfire or suspect a crime.

“You’ve got people who are just sick and tired of being sick and tired and are more willing to get information to the police,” he said.

But despite such efforts, gun crime continues to drag down the neighborhood, Hamilton said.

“They’re shooting over here, and they’re shooting over there, and all of it is drug-related,” he said. “These guys, they get guns and pass them around from one person to the next.”

William Robert Johnson, 65, lives less than a mile away from Capitol View in the same police district, in the series of squat, red-brick buildings that make up the Lincoln Heights housing complex.

Not far away, a small mound of teddy bears, candles and empty bottles of Moet and Ciroc fastened to a stop sign marks the death of 24-year-old Jermile Damon Davis — “MyMy” to his friends — who was shot near Catholic University on Dec. 20. And a pair of dingy white Asics hangs from the power lines in front of Johnson’s apartment building, in memory of another young man who was shot to death in the neighborhood.

“They should have shoes hanging up and down this power line. All the shooting,” Johnson said.

He said he was looking out the window of his second-floor apartment last month when a fight broke out among a group of young men on the front sidewalk. One of the brawlers brandished a gun. Before Johnson heard the crack of a shot fired, he had ducked in his bedroom and begun praying for the shooting to end.

‘We have a war’

On a recent evening at Holy Christian House of Praise, where 300 funeral programs have been pinned to the wall outside the sanctuary, pastor Steve Young Sr. invited lawmakers who aren’t familiar with urban crime to “come and see me because this ain’t no duck hunt.” The church hosts a Life After Homicide ministry to tend to the friends and families of people violently killed.

“The wall speaks for itself,” said Saundra Beverly, whose son Anthony Eugene Wilson was gunned down — shot 22 times — Aug. 3, 2002.

Guns “are for wars, and we have a war in the inner city,” Beverly said, scanning the programs.

Her voice cracked as she recalled her son’s violent death. “I think they shot him because he knew too much,” she said. He had been involved with gangs, his mother said, but he had placed his gun on the church’s altar and vowed to stop hustling. The slaying remains unsolved.

The violence and the feeling that few outside the neighborhood care have wrought deep pain and a defensive bravado, apparent in this room.

“It’s heartbreaking when you grow up in an environment where there’s nothing but death around you,” said Doneika Johnson, 26, who grew up with Dominic Davis, the young man who was shot in January. “It forces you to put on a tough attitude because you don’t want to be perceived as a punk.”

Young and his parishioners said anger management courses, job training and tougher penalties for illegal possession of guns would do more than banning assault weapons. “Two nines [9mm guns] can do just as much damage as an assault weapon,” Young said.

In a survey of urban police officials, PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler said, solutions for tamping down urban gun violence included tough prosecution of felons caught with guns, focusing on gang prevention and targeting known gun offenders with surveillance. Mentoring programs have also proven effective, he said.

“It was a horrible tragedy in Newtown, but if it has provided anything — it has provided an opportunity to take a big picture look at how gun violence affects cities across the country,” he said.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), a longtime advocate of tougher gun laws, is so hopeful about the possibility of tougher restrictions on guns that she took along with her to the State of the Union Nardyne Jefferies, whose 16-year-old daughter, Brishell, was killed with two other teens in a drive-by shooting on South Capitol Street in 2010.

“We will not turn around this time,” Norton said. She sees a real chance for Congress to enact the universal background checks, which she said could cut down on the ability of criminals to buy guns and make resale more difficult.

On the streets of Capitol View, Williams, the young man whose 22-year-old brother was shot last year, said he wonders whether Congress is dealing with the wrong issue. Can a law keep a gun off the streets? Would a background check have saved his brother from a bullet?

His brother was caught up with a “bad crowd, ” said Williams, who added that he leads a comparatively quiet life. He isn’t sure whether tougher gun laws would have saved his sibling — or, for that matter, that they can protect him.

“Jobs, that’s what we need,” Williams said.

Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has covered local businesses, traveled to El Salvador and Guatemala to tell stories of immigrants’ connections to their home countries and reported from the newsroom’s Prince George’s County bureau. More recently, she has written about civil rights, race and politics.
Hamil Harris is currently a multi-platform reporter on the Local Desk of The Washington Post.
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