It’s no secret that Tennessee has a gun violence problem.
As a whole, the state ranked 10th in gun violence deaths in 2020, with a firearm injury death rate of 21.3 per 100,000 people.
Shelby County, home to Memphis, ranks the highest metro county in Tennessee for gun violence deaths, and most alarmingly, the highest in the entire country.
But this isn’t a problem exclusive to Memphis. All three major metropolitan areas in Tennessee have seen rising rates of gun violence. Knox County is in third place with a gun death rate of 14.7 per 100,000 people from 2016-2020. That’s just four points below Davidson County, which has almost double the population.
In 2020 homicides spiked across many cities in the United States, including Knoxville. This phenomenon can be attributed not only to factors surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, but also social unrest brought on by the police killing of George Floyd in May of the same year.
In 2021 the rate of gun violence in Knoxville decreased, but was still at uncomfortably high levels compared to that before the pandemic. It begs the question: What’s fueling gun violence in Knoxville?
This question is one that Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon has sought to answer by employing the help of Thomas Abt, an American author and crime researcher who previously worked for the Obama administration.
Abt has drawn the attention of many media outlets following the publication of his book “Bleeding Out: The Devastating Consequences of Urban Violence – and a Bold New Plan for Peace in the Streets”. The book highlights Abt’s philosophy on gun violence: Using statistical data to help determine the underlying causes of gun violence and in turn formulate plans on how to reduce it.
In Knoxville’s case, it starts with looking at which groups of people are contributing to the violence the most. This was the subject of a panel on Nov. 2, in which Abt, along with Mayor Kincannon, Knoxville Police Chief Paul Noel, and Knoxville Director of Community Safety LaKenya Middlebrook, went through their findings on gun violence at a public panel at the Howard Baker Center on the campus of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
Abt’s research found that of 270 shootings spanning the years 2019-2021, the majority were perpetrated by men aged 29 years old. Only 12.4% of victims and suspects were under 17 years old.
“I think that reflects sometimes a common misunderstanding on gun violence in many jurisdictions, not just in Knoxville, which is that it’s predominantly a youth issue. That’s just not the case,” Abt said at the panel.
Abt also found that victims and suspects together had an average of 9 previous arrests before they were involved in their respective incidents. This paints a clear picture: Many of those affected by gun violence have had past run-ins with the criminal justice system. Individuals who got arrested for gun-related charges may seek bail bonds services or a bail bondsman for their temporary release.
One factor that leads to this sort of violence is involvement in what is commonly referred to as gangs or cliques. Abt has instead taken to simply referring to them as “groups.”
When many think of these types of organizations, they often call up in their minds images of large scale gangs of the 1980s. But the reality in Knoxville today is that these groups are actually quite small.
Many are offshoots of other major groups in larger urban areas such as Detroit, connected to Knoxville via a highway corridor, but this does not mean that membership numbers come anywhere close to matching that of their larger progenitors. Despite this, their contribution to overall gun violence in Knoxville remains large.
“What you’re seeing here is that a significant proportion of the victims and in fact a majority of suspects are involved in some kind of group,” Abt said.
Abt found that although a majority of gun violence being perpetrated in Knoxville is the result of “group on group violence,” the circumstances around these shootings are largely mundane and personal.
Of the data collected, 15.5% of incidents were “related to a formal group related dispute”, while the majority of incidents were personal and sudden disputes, not pre-planned by groups as a whole. Abt said this could range from anything from road rage, a dispute outside a nightclub, or even simply a fight over a girl.
“What we see is a lot of cyclical retaliatory violence that’s happening between and among men who don’t have a lot of opportunities, and don’t have a lot of hope,” Abt said.
If we know the kinds of people being affected by these violent crimes cases, then how should our community go about stopping it?
For Abt, it starts with steps like enhancing KDP resources, assigning drug enforcement to drugs that are most likely to be associated with criminal activity, and overall balancing the approach the city takes across multiple strategies, what Abt calls using “both carrots and sticks to try and change behavior.”
Abt emphasized that it’s important to involve the community in consultation with the steps the city takes to reduce gun violence.
“In pursuit of this work, if it’s going to be sustainably successful, it has to be perceived as fair and legitimate by the residents of Knoxville, and in particular, by the residents who are most affected by these issues.”
But some are recommending different steps.
Dr. Henry Louis Taylor is a professor at the University of Buffalo in New York. Taylor’s work focuses largely on the state of African American neighborhoods in Urban areas. On Nov. 3 the Buffalo professor visited The University of Tennessee Knoxville’s campus and spoke at a panel in the university’s student union.
“I’m a native Tennessean, Nashville,” Taylor began. “My family were slaves in the Memphis area. Still there, many of my family members.”
Gun violence is something that has affected Taylor personally. Earlier this year, a gunman opened fire in a Tops supermarket in Buffalo, where 10 people were killed. The attack was racially motivated.
“The mass shooting at Tops is symptomatic of the larger and more significant problem of urban violence.”
Taylor puts much of the blame for urban violence on the disenfranchisement of Black communities. In poorer areas, where quality of life is low, people may turn to criminal activity in an attempt to escape.
Taylor did not recommend increasing police resources in Knoxville in order to curb violence. Instead he placed an emphasis on investing in Black communities to uplift those who are in substandard living conditions.
Taylor believes that if poorer, underdeveloped neighborhoods are enfranchised, violence will decrease as a result.
But beyond curbing violence, Taylor believes it’s the right thing to do.
“Every human being has a right to live in dignity,” Taylor said. “If all human life is precious, society is responsible for building physical and social environments that enable people to thrive and reach their full human potential.”
Knoxville’s gun violence problem has attracted the attention of many in the city. Both panels on the subject were packed with concerned community members and journalists alike.
If some of these measures can be implemented, only time will tell if they’ll be an exception to a long list of failed gun violence prevention programs across the U.S.