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Louisville experienced mass shootings and routine gun violence. Why did people respond to them differently?

A rose petal memorial was made outside of the Old National Bank in Louisville, where a gunman killed 5 people and injured 8 more on Monday.
Justin Hicks
A rose petal memorial was made outside of the Old National Bank in Louisville, where a gunman killed 5 people and injured 8 more on April 10, 2023.

A mass shooting last week at a bank in downtown Louisville left residents shaken and grieving, and the response has been different to the more frequent gun violence reported in the city.

A gunman killed five people and wounded several others at an Old National Bank downtown.

Then, over the weekend, seven other shootings collectively killed five people and injured nine more. That included another mass shooting — at Chickasaw Park Saturday evening — when police say at least one person opened fire on a large crowd, killing two and injuring four others.

According to a report commissioned by Louisville Metro Government, local gun violence disproportionately affects Black community members. In the first half of 2021, three in four homicide victims were Black. But mass shootings have gotten more widespread attention than the gun violence that impacts marginalized communities.

Figures from the Gun Violence Archive — a nonprofit research database — show that there have been more than 600 mass shootings a year in the country since 2020. These incidents represent just 3.2% of firearm homicides.

WFPL’s Divya Karthikeyan spoke to Dr. Elinore Kaufman, a trauma surgeon at the University of Pennsylvania.

She’s also a Penn Injury Science Center scholar, and her research focuses on public health policy around gun violence and reducing the harmful impacts of traumatic injuries on individuals and communities.

Here in Louisville, we've experienced an ordinary Monday morning turn into a tragedy last week with a shooter killing five people at a bank downtown. We've also seen years of frequent gun violence across Louisville, especially in neighborhoods where marginalized communities live, and that's usually viewed as pretty routine in comparison. What do you see, between the lines, in the ways that residents respond to them? 

So there's something real there that people are reacting to. But I think there's something a little bit pernicious as well.

Young Black men and boys are dramatically most likely to be injured, or killed through interpersonal firearm violence. That’s not random. That's due to a set of structural conditions set up in a racist society, but that puts them at risk. It's decades, and in some cases, centuries of systematic disenfranchisement and disinvestment.

For the general public who's not directly affected by community violence, to kind of dismiss the daily violence and without saying it explicitly to say, ‘If that happened, there was a reason for it. They were somewhere they shouldn't have been, they were doing something they shouldn't have been doing. They were hanging out with the wrong people. They were involved in a gang, they were involved with drugs, they were involved in crime.’ And I think it's important to kind of look at that squarely. And say, first of all, it's not true. Second of all, if it were true, it wouldn't be right.

So the response after a mass shooting in any part of the country is, ‘Oh, this could happen to any of us.’ But that regular gun violence is seen as isolated to a specific neighborhood and community. What is that costing us as a society at large?

It's interesting, I used to say the mass shootings are getting all the attention, it's going to really warp our policy. But honestly, all the attention that mass shootings derive result in very, very, very little change — essentially, no change.

If we really focus on the root causes of violence? We're going to be talking about things like wealth inequality, like generational poverty, housing and schools, social supports, all of those things that we as a society have systematically deprived Black communities and other communities of color from for a long time. These aren't simple policy solutions, but they are powerful. And they have all kinds of other benefits, of course, beyond firearm violence.

You've talked about how structural inequities and racism are at the heart of why we treat this frequent gun violence as isolated from mass shootings. Is there a way forward in acknowledging our very different responses?

I take care of patients all the time who were shot in their cars, in their homes, with a bullet that went through the wall, on their porches, at their own birthday party, at the deli on the corner, at the laundromat. These are all real examples. Walking through the park, playing basketball, on the way home from school, all the time. If we care about the lives that are being interrupted or ended as full people with lives, with families, with friends, with communities, with infinite potential that we as a society are losing out on, that changes our priorities a little bit. I hope so.

Divya is LPM's Race & Equity Reporter. Email Divya at dkarthikeyan@lpm.org.

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