The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

40,302 gunshots the nation didn’t hear about

Michael Corbett, 35, who was shot in the neck by a stray bullet last summer, came to the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X avenues in Southeast D.C. on July 25 to see the mural that artist Aniekan Udofia painted in memory of Nyiah Courtney, 6, who was fatally shot there on July 16. (Petula Dvorak/The Washington Post)

A week. That’s about all D.C.’s gunfire problem got from the nation’s conscience.

“What they were talking about on TV? All over the world?” said Michael Corbett, 35, who pointed to a dime-size scar where a stray bullet pierced his neck, ripped through his jaw and lodged inside his gums a year ago. “That’s daily life for us.”

The bullet that surgeons pulled out of Corbett’s mouth, which hit him while he was sitting on his girlfriend’s porch, left behind just one of 40,302 casings that D.C. authorities catalogued in three years.

Let me say it again: A trigger was pulled at least 40,302 times in 2018, 2019 and 2020 in the nation’s capital, according to the police records that The Washington Post’s Peter Hermann and John D. Harden obtained and wrote about in a searing article last week.

But the nation and the world heard about very few of those shootings.

Corbett’s shooting certainly didn’t make the news.

The epidemic of gunfire in the nation’s capital finally got the world’s attention last week, only because of where the latest shots were fired: first outside the Washington Nationals’ baseball stadium on July 17, sending fans and players ducking for cover, and then not far from one of downtown’s most fancy-schmancy restaurants on Thursday night.

And suddenly, the terrified guys in golf shirts ducking behind their club seats and diners fleeing their tables, cloth napkins fluttering behind them, became the faces of D.C.’s gun violence.

A shooting shuts down a baseball game. This is what gunfire in America looks like.

“I have been watching some of the violence in Washington and please be careful,” said a rare text from my father-in-law in California, who didn’t worry so much when I reported in an overseas war zone or spent 20 years hanging around midnight crime scenes in Los Angeles, New Jersey, New Orleans and D.C.

But he loves baseball and white-tablecloth restaurants. And for him, a shooting near a baseball stadium and Le Diplomate hits close to home.

Could it be a good thing?

“To be honest, and I know it can sound bad saying this, but if this gets people’s attention? Maybe that’s good,” said Mark Blakeney, 51.

Blakeney saw those stadium faces on TV, the look of someone experiencing gunfire for the first time — the heart rate, blood pressure and breathing that increased when their adrenal glands released catecholamines, their dilated pupils, their trembling hands.

It’s usually a surprise to city gunfire virgins — the sound. It’s loud and metallic, almost like someone is banging a metal trash can lid on a concrete sidewalk, a foot from your ear.

“We learned that early on, to hit the floor when we were little,” Blakeney said.

His friend Steve Evans, 55, who grew up with Blakeney in a housing project in Southeast D.C., said the gunfire in his neighborhood was so frequent, “I just got numb to it.”

They both got out of their childhood poverty and have good jobs and good lives now.

The longtime friends came to the Shrimp Boat Plaza for their version of Sunday brunch, but they’ve been away from the neighborhood long enough to forget that it’s closed on Sundays.

So they had time to talk to me.

They’re frustrated that D.C.’s homicide rate is climbing back toward what it was when they were young, reaching a 16-year high last year.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) declared gun violence a public health emergency in February.

“Now, a lot of the killing isn’t about drugs,” Evans said. “It’s about beefs or grudges or someone talked to someone else’s woman. And these young men don’t know how to deal with their anger. They didn’t learn that.”

And when it’s those young men shooting one another, the outrage doesn’t make it past their neighborhoods, both men agreed.

Across the street from the Shrimp Boat is the Benco Shopping Center, which is on Benning Road, one of the deadliest streets in D.C.

Markeith Muskelly, 52, is a barber at Unique Cutz in the center. Hermann talked to him for the article about those 40,302 casings, and Muskelly has seen plenty of those bullets fired.

“A lot of kids get killed, and you don’t hear about it,” Muskelly told me. “I don’t know if that’s going to change.”

The nation heard about 6-year-old Nyiah Courtney, whose family knows Muskelly. The young girl with the bright smile was killed in her neighborhood the day before the shooting outside the stadium. So her story framed D.C.’s week of violence (which, statistically, wasn’t too different from most other weeks this summer).

“She’s the eighth one,” said Corbett, the man who had been shot in the neck. “We’re still not over Davon.”

We know violent crime is up. We don’t know why.

At least eight children have been shot, not all fatally, since last July, when Davon McNeal, 11, was killed at a Fourth of July peace cookout in the neighborhood.

On Sunday morning, Corbett had come to the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X avenues, where Nyiah was killed.

He wanted to pay his respects and see the mural of Nyiah that artist Aniekan Udofia had painted on a liquor store wall.

“It is beautiful,” he said. “But it’s so frustrating that we have this.”

This column is already too old, in the short half-life of today’s news cycle.

For a week, D.C. violence was at the top of the news. But over the weekend, the fever cooled. The Nats went on to play without gunfire, the linguine alle vongole was served at Le Diplomate without incident.

The national news feed is now all Olympic skateboarding, California fires and congressional squabbling.

Two men were killed in the 100 block of Q Street NW on Sunday. It wasn’t near a stadium, or any really fancy restaurants. And the news briefing at the scene was pretty small.

Twitter: @petulad

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