Teddy bears hang on a tree on Wheeler Road SE between the 3300 and 3900 block, where six shootings happened in seven days. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
Columnist

In the search for causes of gun violence in the District, you can’t go wrong by blaming the gun.

“This is our number one problem in the District of Columbia. Illegal guns,” acting police chief Peter Newsham said at a community meeting on crime in Southeast Washington on Monday.

Hundreds of residents nodded in agreement. They had gathered at the Eagle Academy Public Charter School in the Congress Heights neighborhood, many of them angry and afraid. Six people had been recently shot along a seven-block stretch of the thoroughfare where the school is located. One of them died.

“The number one motive of shootings is petty disputes, minor petty beefs,” Newsham said. “And the reasons those interactions are becoming fatal is because of these right here.” On a large projector screen was a photograph of some of the guns that police had confiscated.

To hear police tell it, you’d think the gun had somehow turned a “petty” dispute into a homicide. But the gun did not pull its own trigger or compel a person to pick it up and shoot somebody.

Ward 8, where the shootings occurred, is predominantly black and has the highest rates of poverty, unemployment, food insecurity, premature deaths and crime in the city. Years ago, low-income black people were pushed out of Georgetown and Southwest Washington and herded into poorly constructed public housing in Southeast.

Violence escalated amid despair, hopelessness, inequality and neglect.

Now residents are being pushed again — displaced to make way for more expensive housing and luxurious amenities for people with more resources.

“People are being moved into neighborhoods where they have long-standing beefs with people already there,” said Anthony Muhammad, a longtime resident of the ward. “See what’s happening in Barry Farm,” he said, referring to the public housing complex. Residents there “are being moved into Congress Park, so problems are being created because of that type of move.”

What appears to the police to be little more than “petty disputes” may actually be desperation, anger and fear born of poverty, joblessness, mass incarceration and fraying social networks.

“We can spend $5 million on dog parks and $300 a day to incarcerate a juvenile at the [Department of Youth Services],” said Trayon White, who represents the area on the D.C. Council, “but we can’t get funding for after-school programs that cost $75 a child.”

White has proposed an after-school program that would offer additional academic enrichment, but he has yet to gain enough support to get it off the ground.

Do dogs matter more than black lives? It can sometimes feel that way. Residents in Southeast should no more tolerate such perverse priorities than they would these killings.

Shootings are guaranteed to fill a community meeting. But residents also need to get excited about addressing the problems that lead to violence. Post-traumatic stress disorder is epidemic in the city. Walter Reed Army Medical Center, also located in the city, has experts who know how to treat it. Why aren’t some of them being invited to community meetings?

Regis Bryant, commander of the 7th Police District, announced that he was holding a “private meeting” with Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners, “so we can all be on the same page.” But what about a meeting with some global business leaders who know how to create jobs for chronically unemployed people?

Newsham noted that he was all for “long-term solutions,” but he emphasized that confiscating guns was a top priority.

In one week, from Feb. 27 to March 6, D.C. police seized 27 firearms. The guns included a sawed-off Mossberg shotgun; a .40-caliber Smith & Wesson semiautomatic handgun; .40-caliber Glock semiautomatic handgun; and a 9 mm Iwi Uzi semiautomatic pistol with an extended clip.

The availability of such high-quality firearms indicates the presence of a robust gun trade in a city with some of the strictest gun-control laws in the country.

And the market shows no sign of disappearing, even though the District has been confiscating guns by the thousands for decades. Whether gun violence goes up or down has little to do with how many they seize. It has to do with how hopeful people are, how much opportunity they have, and how much help they receive managing pain, anger and rage.

“If you see someone in our community carrying one of these, let us know,” Newsham said of the firearms. “We will come and get it. We have 3,700 officers who will be happy to come and take these out of our community.”

As if the gun were public enemy No. 1.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.