The shootings rippled across the country this month, a steady drumbeat of tragedy stretching from coast to coast.
Then, last weekend, nine people were shot at a shopping mall in Columbia, S.C. And hours later, two teenagers were killed, and more injured, during a shooting at a house party in Pittsburgh.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Scott E. Schubert, the Pittsburgh police chief, said of the deadly shooting there early Easter Sunday.
The stream of shootings comes amid a grim backdrop of increased gun violence nationwide, and at a time when mayors, police chiefs and mediators working on the streets to curb the bloodshed were already reporting a disturbing shift. Grievances or minor slights that might have once led to fistfights, they said, were instead suddenly escalating to gunfire.
In some of the recent shootings that left numerous people dead or injured, officials said the gunfire appeared to be tied to disputes among people or groups gathered in public or crowded areas. But this violence underscored that shootings leaving several people injured or killed are up significantly compared with before the pandemic, and the ongoing toll has public officials and others fearful heading into the summer months.
Columbus, Ohio, Mayor Andrew J. Ginther said the recent string of shootings from Sacramento to Pittsburgh left him feeling horrified, angry and frustrated that “we’re continuing to see these things happening over and over and over again.”
So far this year, the number of shootings that killed or injured at least four people is much higher than it was at this point just a few years ago, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a research group. (The group categorizes “mass shootings” as cases in which at least four people are killed or wounded, not including the shooter.)
That grim tally rose Friday when police say a gunman in Northwest Washington fired indiscriminately from an apartment building, injuring three adults and a child.
The past two years have been bleak for cities across the country grappling with more gun violence and homicides. In many cities, the levels of bloodshed remain far below what was seen a generation ago, but the recent surge in violence has left behind shattered families, shaken communities and anxious residents.
In New York, there were 488 killings in 2021, compared with 319 two years earlier, before the pandemic. That remains well below the agonizing toll seen a few decades ago — in 1990 alone, the city had more than 2,200 murders — but the increase has left some New Yorkers fearful about safety in their city.
New York Mayor Eric Adams (D), who campaigned on public safety issues, said during a television appearance after the subway attack that he had been “in the city when it spiraled out of control” decades earlier.
“That is not what we’re facing at this time,” Adams said on MSNBC last weekend. He also described the rise in gun violence as a nationwide issue, not limited to certain cities.
The mayor of Savannah, Ga., Van Johnson, said the rise in gun violence in his city and across the country is “unlike anything we’ve ever seen.”
He attributes the phenomenon to the availability of illegal guns, a lack of maturity in settling disputes and a critical shortage of resources to address mental health and substance use disorders.
Johnson also said he makes a point of visiting each place where a shooting occurs.
“I want to show that this is not ordinary,” he said. “There should be no such thing as a routine gun violence incident.”
Public mass shootings like the Brooklyn subway attack tend to get the most attention, though such rampages are actually outliers relative to how gun violence typically unfolds in America, said April M. Zeoli, an associate professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University.
“Mass shootings are absolutely the minority of gun deaths in the United States,” Zeoli said. “Single-victim shootings are far more common. Many, many more people die per day, per month, per year, in homicides that do not meet the level of mass shootings, than people who are shot in mass shootings.”
And not all mass killings get equal attention, Zeoli said. The most common mass shootings, she said, are domestic cases, but media and public scrutiny tend to focus more on those in public spaces — like movie theaters or houses of worship — “because they are scarier to a lot of people,” she said. “Anybody can put themselves in this situation.”
Even that public scrutiny, experts said, appears to have dwindled over the years for many shootings. Zeoli said that a few years ago, she had students do a project analyzing television news coverage of shootings.
The main factor in determining the breadth of coverage, she said, “was the number of deaths.”
Despite the intense focus on those shootings that hit strangers in public places, “almost no shootings are random,” noted Daniel Webster, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions. “Yes, a few, but they’re incredibly rare. Those are the ones that get the most attention because they seem like there’s no rhyme or reason, like what happened in the subway in Brooklyn recently.
“More commonly, shootings, whether they are mass shootings or just one individual shot, you can often boil it down to something pretty basic,” Webster said. “Grievances and guns.”
And the number of guns across America has only increased since the pandemic began.
In 2020 and 2021, gun sales surged to unprecedented numbers, according to a Washington Post analysis of federal data on gun background checks. That spike has eased so far this year, with an estimated 17,200 firearms purchased in the first three months of 2022, down from the previous two years.
But that followed “historic purchases,” Webster said, which came at “a very uncertain time, a volatile cultural, political context, where people lack faith in the state’s ability to protect them.”
Webster said that in a place with regular gun violence and where people do not believe the police will keep them safe, they might want guns for safety, presuming other people already have them.
“You think, well, a pretty substantial share of people in this environment are armed,” he said. “You’re on edge. And you don’t want to be the second one to reach for your gun.”
And that, according to both officials and mediators fighting violence, has been happening with grim frequency.
In Indianapolis, Police Chief Randal Taylor watched as the increasingly senseless explanations for homicides came pouring in: people who had been shot dead during a spat over a parking space or in retaliation for an offensive post on social media. He said it was unlike anything he had seen in his 34-year career in law enforcement.
“When you have people who don’t have a criminal history that are killing for these other reasons, that’s more concerning,” said Taylor, whose city broke its homicide record in 2020 and again last year.
Leonard Jahad, executive director of the Connecticut Violence Intervention Program, said tension “just seems to be heightened” in recent years, which he attributed to isolation due to the pandemic and the echo chamber of social media.
Young people he works with seek one another out online to deliver threats and “go at each other in the most disrespectful ways,” Jahad said. “It’s a whole different culture that we’re trying to break.”
Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, an anti-violence activist before he got into politics, also said an increasing share of the violence in his city appeared to stem from interpersonal disputes, making it hard for law enforcement to effectively intervene. Mediators who work the city’s streets trying to keep issues from escalating said the efforts have grown more dangerous as guns have proliferated.
Alex Long, who works as a violence interrupter for the city-funded Safe Streets program in Baltimore, said that in the past seven years, he has seen a marked rise in the number of people armed and willing to use their weapons.
“The gun is the end all, be all,” Long said. “It’s ‘you step on my shoe, I go get my gun. You look at me wrong, I go get my gun.’ ”
Gun violence is fundamentally local, said Caterina Roman, a criminal justice professor at Temple University.
“We can look at the national statistics and say, ‘This might be a trend,’ [but] I’m of the belief that to really understand violence and gun violence, we have to be looking deeper into individual cities,” Roman said. “It’s a neighborhood issue.”
To some city leaders, the pandemic offers at least some explanation for the increase in violence. As people lost jobs and social connections during the pandemic, support systems withered, and fuses got shorter.
“There’s more frustration, more stress, more anger in people, more uncertainty,” said Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer, a former police chief. “It does play a role.”
Homicides in Columbus, however, reached a record in 2021, prompting Ginther, the mayor, to call gun violence a “public health crisis” this year.
Nine out of 10 homicides in the city last year involved a firearm, he said in an interview, and 80 percent of the victims and perpetrators were African American men under the age of 40.
But Ginther said the early months of this year have provided cause for optimism, with homicides down significantly in comparison to 2021, a change he credits to a new intervention program focused on reaching a small group of people who commit a disproportionate share of violent crimes, as well as fresh investments in law enforcement.
“We think things are headed in the right direction after some of the worst years ever,” Ginther said. But he also noted such trends can shift quickly.
The availability of weapons and the approach of summertime — when people move outdoors and hold more large gatherings — are recipes for increased violence, experts fear.
In Pittsburgh, Schubert, the police chief, said officials believe an “altercation” at the house party there led to gunfire between at least two people early Sunday morning.
More than 100 rounds were fired, police said, some inside the house and some outside.
Lee Davis, who has worked in violence prevention programs in Pittsburgh for almost two decades, knew both of the teenagers who were killed, meeting one through a mentoring program and another at his company. “I’ve been crying for the past two days,” Davis said.
Davis also said that people fighting the violence “can do a whole lot more if we have more resources” to pay for more violence interrupters, therapists and case managers.
“If we keep throwing pennies at the situation, and just hoping and praying that it goes away, we will keep seeing this over and over,” he said.
Nick Keppler in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.