Local communities consider history, both recent and distant, in attempt to understand gun violence
By Rosette Royale
Ask Reco Bembry about the history of gun violence and how it affects local communities, and he may tell you a story from the recent past.
Last year, Bembry met 15-year-old Reggie, who wanted to learn skills that would benefit him later in life. Bembry, a long-time community activist who has worked in youth development and intervention services, mentored Reggie in a leadership program called LeaderShift; through LeaderShift, Reggie also participated in Seattle Parks and Recreation’s outdoor summer youth program called Rec’N The Streets. To take part in activities in Rainier Beach, Reggie commuted from Federal Way. He was a faithful attendee.
After the program finished on Aug. 12, 2021, Bembry and other adults drove the teenager to the Rainier Beach light rail station. There, Reggie boarded a southbound train to the Angle Lake station, in SeaTac. After disembarking, he texted his grandmother, who had survived a terminal illness, to say he was on his way home.
He walked to a nearby bus stop for the final leg of his commute, but before he could board, he was hit by gunfire. Two men nearby, whom Reggie didn’t know, were shot as well. The men survived. Reggie died on the scene. Weeks later, the grandmother Reggie had texted, who was overcome with grief, also died.
“So I had two funerals — for the grandmother and one for him — within two months of each other,” Bembry said. “That was devastating for that family, for the folks in that community. And that’s just one story of gun violence on one person’s life, that impacted so many lives around him.”
Reggie was one of 88 firearm homicide victims in King County last year, and the men shot at the same time account for two of last year’s 372 nonfatal shooting victims, statistics derived from the “2021 Year End King County Firearm Violence Report.” Reggie’s death and the shooting of the two men remain unsolved.
In 2021, there were 1,405 total shots-fired incidents in the county. More than 62% of those incidents, and 59% of homicide and nonfatal shooting victims, took place outside Seattle.
Last year saw a combined 460 firearm homicides and nonfatal shootings in the region — a record. But since 2017, there have been more than 200 combined fatal and nonfatal shootings a year. Recent history shows the human toll has been vast. But how has the long scope of history shaped what’s happening in King County now?
To Bembry, a core component of the centuries-long history of gun violence in the U.S. can be boiled down to one word: power. “If people understand the history of the gun in this country, and how the gun was used as a tool to acquire power, then why the hell would you think young people wouldn’t use the same proven methodology to acquire and gain power themselves?”
Trying to detail the history of guns in the U.S. amounts to an onerous task, one that would require years of research and likely line the shelves of an immense library. Even so, a micro-history reveals the history of guns and that of America are intertwined, in part because both were born at roughly the same moment.
NPR reports that museum curators from the National Rifle Association’s Firearms Museum point to a story about the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Caribbean in the late 1400s, when his crew shot a deck cannon to announce the sighting of land. When Columbus set foot on what became known as Haiti, he fired guns to terrify and intimidate a tribal king. Historians also point to Spanish explorers Juan Ponce de Leon and Hernando de Soto, who both surveyed what became known as Florida in the early to mid-1500s. During their independent journeys, both were accompanied by men with firearms.
In 1609, two years after the establishment of Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement on the Virginia coast, John Smith reported settlers possessed 300 matchlocks, firearms where a pulled trigger lit a piece of hemp or flax that ignited gunpowder. By 1625, Jamestown was said to have more than a thousand firearms. And historians believe that when the Mayflower arrived in the Northeast in 1620, firearms were likely on board, though none have been found with other artifacts.
From there, the gun fired its way into U.S. history. Firearms are credited with helping colonists defeat the British during the American Revolutionary War, which ended in 1783. Springfield muskets and Colt revolvers proved popular during the Civil War, which saw the arrival, in 1861, of the Gatling gun, a six-barreled powerhouse that could fire up to 350 rounds a minute.
When the Civil War ended, gunmakers sought ways to sell surplus guns to U.S. citizens. During the Reconstruction era that followed, some white Southeners brandished, and shot, firearms to terrorize freed Black people. In 1871, the Bill of Rights was ratified, which included the Second Amendment that famously guaranteed “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms.” Five years later, during the country’s 100th anniversary, the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History created the National Firearms Collection, which contains an estimated 7,000 firearms.
By this point, guns had been introduced to the West by white traders and trappers, and firearms were used to slaughter millions of American bison, which were sometimes shot by passengers riding trains. One expert marksman was “Buffalo” Bill Cody, who, during a two-year span, is believed to have killed 4,000 bison alone. (The current Buffalo Bill Center of the West, located in Cody, Wyo., contains the Cody Firearms Museum, which holds more than 10,000 firearms and related pieces.)
Firearms have been used to assassinate a who’s who of U.S. political and cultural figures, including, but not limited to, Presidents Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy, Sen. Robert Kennedy, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lennon, Harvey Milk, and Black Panther Party co-founder Huey Newton.This does not include attempted assassinations or the countless number of people killed by firearms throughout the country’s history.
Indeed, in the 500-plus years since Columbus menaced an Indigenous leader on Haiti, guns have come to outnumber the country’s population. While the U.S. population in 2018 was 326.8 million, the Small Arms Survey, a group based in Switzerland, determined that in the same year, people in the U.S. owned 393 million guns. In 2020, Gallup found that 44% of U.S. adults reported living in a household that contained at least one firearm. That same year, people in the U.S. bought nearly 23 millions guns. In 2021, roughly 20 million firearms were purchased.
“This gun violence,” Bembry said, “is a cultural thing.”
A Culture of Violence
For Khalid Adams, culture, particularly popular culture, can influence someone’s attitude toward violence, particularly when it comes to firearms.
Adams, who works as a violence interrupter for Community Passageways, a local nonprofit that helps create alternatives to incarceration for young adults and youth, says that songs can glorify gun culture. On top of that, TV showcases violence. For young people struggling economically, a gun can represent a false sense of security and lead them to incorrectly think, Adams says, that “this gun protects me.”
Gun violence, he also believes, can be connected to generational violence experienced at home, in one’s youth. “Generational violence, that’s just passed down [from] your parents,” he says. “They’re tough on you, so you’re tough on your own kids.”
Adams, 38, admits his young life contained its share of tough moments. He left his mother’s home at 14; his father struggled with substance use. At 19, Adams was incarcerated for 10 years. After his release, another offense led to a five-year term. Having spent 15 years incarcerated, he says, allows him to relate to young people today facing their own hardships, an understanding he believes could have served him in youth. “If I had me when I was a kid, nineteen, I probably would’ve never went to prison,” he says.
One thing he sees, in his interactions with young people, is that it can be hard for a young person to distinguish right from wrong when they’re deprived of bare necessities. A young person who feels secure economically may see a woman across the street drop her purse, he says, and decide to help her. “But when you don’t have housing, clothes or food, that lady walking across the street that dropped that purse? ‘That’s my opportunity. Because I need some money.’”
Indeed, numerous studies have shown that, in the U.S., high income inequality and high poverty rates are tied to higher rates of gun violence.
In 2000, the median household income in King County was $53,517, according to the county’s Office of Economic and Financial Analysis. In 2018, the most recent year presented by the County, the median household income had jumped to $95,009. Yet not everyone enjoyed prosperity: That same year, 20% of King County households brought in $40,214 or less. (To clarify: A county’s median income represents the income that falls in the middle of all county incomes; one-half of all incomes fall below the median and one-half rise above the median.)
In 2019, the poverty rate in King County was 7.6%. But when broken down by race, the numbers become more stark. For county residents who identified as white, the poverty rate was 5.9%; for Asian alone, 8%; for Hispanic or Latino, 9.8%; and for Black or African American, 18.9%.
Like numerous counties nationwide, King County has experienced an uptick in gun violence, with the number of combined fatal and nonfatal shooting victims in 2021 — 460 — almost double the number of combined fatal and nonfatal shooting victims in 2018. Last year, 48% of the fatal and nonfatal shooting victims were Black or African American.
The Impact of Inequities
Dr. Ali Rowhani-Rahbar, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington, says that people not only experience the direct impact of economic inequality, they also witness it in their communities. “When things are inequitable, people get frustrated, they get upset,” he says. “They feel that this is an unfair society and community, [and that] the allocation of resources is such that it deprives them, unjustly, from sometimes the basic human rights.”
Over time, the toll can create stress and anxiety, which, Rowhani-Rahbar says, can erode trust. Firearms only make the situation more volatile.
“When you see profound deprivation in certain geographic units or certain subgroups of the population; when you see that people’s mental health has been compromised; when you see that the level of stress is really high; when you see the level of trust is really low: Those are all risk factors for violence,” he says.
Rowhani-Rahbar says there’s little use arguing whether guns are inseparable from American identity and society. “But the question is: What kind of interventions can we do to reduce the burden of the trauma that these firearms can cause?”
Similar thoughts occur to Bembry around his work with young people, like Reggie, who died in the shooting last August. Bembry says the summer program offered Reggie many benefits, including safety. “While he was in the program, he wasn’t harmed, he didn’t get hurt, he didn’t hurt anybody. He was safe,” Bembry says. “When he got back to South King County, Seattle couldn’t protect him.”
The loss of Reggie still weighs on Bembry, and with the weight comes guilt, even though he knows he’s not to blame. “That was on my watch,” Bembry says, “so I own, you know, that portion of that, even knowing there wasn’t really anything else we could have done to create safer harbor.”