It’s a pattern that seems to play out among teens with increasing regularity: Anger, insults exchanged, perhaps online or at a social gathering. Then, suddenly, gunshots. A scene of celebration turns into chaos and terror.
A fight between teens led to the mass shooting on the busy Hollywood Broadwalk on Memorial Day that injured nine. A few days later, 15-year old boy was shot multiple times by another minor and hospitalized in Lauderhill, the same morning that the city hosted an anti-gun violence walk less than a mile away, according to police. At a Sweet Sixteen party in Boynton Beach on June 20, a 17-year old boy was shot and killed after another fight between two groups.
“From time immemorial, kids, particularly males, fight with each other,” said Daniel Nagin, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University. “But when they fight with each other using firearms, it becomes a much more dangerous situation.”
The Boynton Beach shooting joined a spike in violence across the country on that same Juneteenth holiday weekend, as celebration after celebration turned into gunshots. In St. Louis, another 17-year-old was killed and 11 other teenagers were wounded in a shooting at a party on Sunday, according to police. In Milwaukee, at least six teenagers were shot on Monday near where the city’s Juneteenth celebration had taken place. The shooting may have stemmed from a fight between a group of girls and young women, according to Police Chief Jeffrey Norman.
Gun violence, particularly among young people, spiked during the pandemic and remains at elevated levels in South Florida and across the country. As the violence continues, a clear cause, and with it, a solution, remains out of reach. Experts point to increasing access to guns, changes in the policing of crimes, psychological and cultural shifts brought on by the pandemic — and the subsequent return of group gatherings — all as potential reasons why events like the Hollywood mass shooting appear to have become more common, and aren’t going away any time soon.
Florida’s permitless carry bill also takes effect Saturday, followed by Independence Day three days later. Some fear that the relaxing of existing gun control laws will make the shootings worse.
“When guns are in the room, guns are easily accessible, that is the solution,” said Joanette Brookes-George, a longtime Lauderhill teacher, now a criminal justice professor at St. Thomas University in Miami. “Fighting is not the solution, guns are. I’m mad, I don’t have the words. I’m going to use body language and the body language is, my uncle has a gun and it’s in the room.”
Fatal shootings and firearm crimes increasing, data shows
Gun violence was already growing nationally before the pandemic catalyzed it, experts say.
“There’s been a marked upswing in firearm violence and firearm deaths which began in 2000,” Nagin said, adding that the pandemic likely “accelerated” it.
Among teens, the change is stark.
For children and teens under 18, the rate of gun deaths increased by over 40%, from 2,483 deaths in 2018 to 3,607 in 2021, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Those include homicides, suicides, and accidental deaths.
The rate also increased over the same time period in Florida, peaking in 2020 with 194 deaths, then decreasing only slightly in 2021 to 180 deaths, according to the CDC data.
In Broward and Palm Beach counties, the number of firearm-involved crimes overall has steadily increased over the years, up until 2020, the last year for which data is available, according to data from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The number doubled in Broward between 2016 and 2020.
Gun homicides in both counties have also increased since the early 2000s, according to data from the Florida Department of Health, both surpassing the statewide rate.
Gun access increasing
One explanation for the spike in shootings is increased gun access. Gun sales shot up during the pandemic, many of them made by households with teens. A 2021 study found that 10% of households with teens purchased firearms at the beginning of the pandemic, 3% of which were first-time gun owners. Those guns were more likely to be stored loaded and unlocked.
“…a notable percentage of households with teens have become first-time firearm-owning households during this time,” the authors concluded. “Such purchases are concerning because, as we found, these firearms were more likely to end up in a home with teens present where at least some firearms are stored loaded and unlocked compared to homes where all firearms are stored unloaded and/or locked.”
On Saturday, Florida’s new permitless carry bill goes into effect. The bill eliminates the requirement that someone get a permit, take a safety and training course, and get fingerprinted before carrying a concealed firearm.
Gun control advocates criticized the bill, saying that it may add to the violence.
“This law that they passed in the legislature was totally unnecessary,” said Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Parkland, who serves as vice chair of the Congressional Gun Violence Prevention Task Force. “We had concealed carry permits in South Florida and that process was working fine. This was a solution in search of a problem.”
The policy is pushing “this idea that the solution to the gun violence prevention issue is more guns,” he added.
Still, some experts aren’t sure that an increase in gun access fully explains the recent spike in shootings.
“I’ve heard some observers link that greater availability of firearms due to those purchases to the surge in violence,” Nagin said. “And maybe that’s the case, but the question I haven’t heard answered is, the stock of guns in the U.S is already so large. Most estimates put it north of 350 million weapons. So that stock was already so large, I’m not sure that the increase in purchases during pandemic sort of materially changed the size of the stock.”
‘Imaginary beef’: Miscommunication and gun access ends in tragedy
Almost instantly, it seems, guns can turn a misunderstanding between two young people into injury and death.
“Anecdotally, it seems that sometimes it’s just very spontaneous,” Nagin said. “Spontaneous in just the way, forever and forever, it’s always been the case, but in the past these disputes and anger have been settled with fists versus with firearms.”
While gun purchases increased, the pandemic also upended social norms and, particularly among young people, the ability to connect, said Brookes-George. Social life has since returned, but the effects of that disconnect linger.
“We were forced, almost overnight, to adjust to not connecting to someone else,” she said. “And then, of course, social media and Zoom and all these things. The only thing that is certain about human nature is the desire to connect.”
Now, more than ever, young people are having “imaginary beef” with one another, Brookes-George said, fights that seem to originate out of confusion and miscommunication, often aided by social media.
Increasingly, those fights seem to end in a shooting rather than a conversation.
The combination of the pandemic’s aftermath, existing anxiety surrounding social gatherings, and guns “creates all these escalations at birthday parties, graduation parties, weddings,” Brookes-George added. “All these pressures come, it’s pressure versus a pipe. No coping mechanisms, no communication skills, it blows up. Coming to the party like ‘yeah, I’ve got my gun, you’ve got yours?’”
Minorities disproportionately affected
Latroya Stone’s 15-year-old son, Kyan Reddix, was shot multiple times on the Hollywood Broadwalk on Memorial Day. Only days later, another 15-year-old was hospitalized after the shooting in Lauderhill, the same day as the Walk for Peace.
The Lauderhill shooting happened right across the street from Stone’s house, she told the Sun Sentinel in the days after the shooting.
“It’s just crazy how easy it is for them to have access to these weapons,” Stone said at the time, recalling a conversation with her son’s aunt about it. “I told her, it’s only going to get worse. Because now you don’t need to have a permit.”
When it comes to the shootings among youth, much attention gets paid to singular, high-profile events like school shootings, often perpetrated by white people. But it is minority communities, such as the Black neighborhoods in Lauderhill, that have faced the brunt of the gun violence spike on a daily basis.
“There is gun violence in communities across Florida every day,” Moskowitz said. “The slow drip of kids getting killed every day in communities across the state due to gun violence should be no different from when it happens at once.”
There’s “no question” that the spike has been “particularly acute in minority neighborhoods,” Nagin said.
More relaxed gun laws, like the permitless carry bill, could also add to the tension already present during interactions between police officers and Black people. It might also mean that police officers are less likely to pull someone over in the first place, Brookes-George said, adding to a “spiral of crime” in the community.
Nagin pointed to a reduction in the police force, and possibly less aggressive firearm enforcement, as another potential reason for the uptick in shootings in the first place.
“There is good evidence that police numbers matter, and there has been a decline in size of police forces over last several years,” he said, adding that he has heard “speculation,” but not any hard evidence, to support the idea that police have become less aggressive and proactive in their enforcement tactics.
Nagin added that there is good evidence to suggest that more confrontational police tactics, like “stop and frisk,” may help mitigate the violence, but implementing them would come at a great cost, likely evoking a huge backlash in the community, especially after George Floyd.
Government officials, police officers and community leaders have tried myriad approaches to try to stem the shootings, but just as there is no singular cause for the violence, no singular solution seems to exist.
“There is no silver bullet here,” Moskowitz said. “This is a problem where you have to do all of the above. It’s mental health, it’s school resource officers, it’s safe storage, it’s 21, it’s red flag laws, it’s background checks, it’s school resource officers, it’s single points of entry.”
At the peace walk in Lauderhill, officials announced new technology that allows police officers to locate the source of gunshots. Police Chief Constance Stanley underlined the need for more mentors in the community to help young people specifically.
Noting the rise in shootings, she told reporters, “I just think they don’t understand the consequences.”
Brookes-George echoed that concern.
“Kids already feel that guns are fun things, because they play with them in games and it’s ‘OK, I die, I reset, or I kill you, we reset,’” she said. “They don’t have the cognitive understanding of the finality of gun use, of a gun, until it happens to them, until they use it, and they’re like, ‘oh shoot, the person is not going to wake up.’”