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‘Disheartening’ rise in King County gun violence has already surpassed 2020’s record toll

Shell casings and evidence markers are seen across from Trinity Nightclub as Seattle police are on the scene of a shooting in the Pioneer Square neighborhood, Sunday, July 25, 2021. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times/TNS)  (Ken Lambert)
By Sara Jean Green Seattle Times

The sharp spike in gun violence seen in King County last year has continued unabated in 2021, with fatal and injury shootings in the first nine months of the year already exceeding 2020’s year-end totals, according to the most recent data released Tuesday by the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.

People of color, especially young Black men, continue to be disproportionately affected by gun violence, as has been reported in previous years.

The prosecutor’s 2021 numbers point to an especially bloody summer, with 31 more firearm-related homicides, 129 more injury shootings and 456 more shooting incidents in which no one was hit during July, August and September.

As of the end of September, 73 people had been killed and another 283 injured in shootings in King County this year, according to third-quarter data from the prosecutor’s Shots Fired Project. In all of 2020, there were 69 firearm-related homicides and 268 nonfatal shootings, numbers that represented a 36% increase in total gunshot victims above the three-year average between 2017 and 2020.

The Shots Fired Project, begun in early 2017, tracks the number of fatal and injury shootings in the county, along with shootings that result in property damage and those that don’t but are confirmed by evidence such as shell casings. The Shots Fired data does not include suicides carried out with firearms, self-inflicted shootings or shootings in which an officer was involved.

“While 2020 set all sorts of records, 2021 is blowing that out of the water,” said King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg. “It’s disheartening to see these numbers continue to go up and I have to think the pandemic has something to do with it.”

Economic insecurity, isolation, school closures and myriad other pandemic-related impacts are seen as likely contributors to the spike in gun violence, a pattern that’s been seen across the country, Satterberg said.

“I don’t take much comfort in the fact our rates are lower than other major cities — that doesn’t help the 356 people who have been shot this year,” he said. “We don’t underestimate the devastating consequences that being shot has on somebody’s health and life expectancy and economic outlook. It can radically change their life forever. We have 86 more people who were shot and didn’t die — that’s a lot of people over an already escalating trend of violence from a year ago.”

According to the prosecutor’s Shots Fired data, of the people shot so far this year, 85% were male, 32% were between the ages of 18 and 24, and 81% were people of color. Similar to other years, 50% of the 356 fatal and nonfatal shooting victims were Black in a county where Black people make up 7% of the population.

This year, the prosecutor’s Shots Fired Project collected data from more than 20 law enforcement agencies in King County, but the majority of data came from the eight agencies that account for 79% of the county’s population: Seattle, Tukwila, Kent, Auburn, Renton, Des Moines and Federal Way police departments and the King County Sheriff’s Office, which covers unincorporated King County and provides policing services to 16 contract cities.

Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center, the region’s level 1 trauma center, has also seen a dramatic increase in the number of gunshot patients its doctors treat.

Dr. Eileen Bulger, Harborview’s chief of trauma, said 355 gunshot wound patients were treated at the hospital between January and mid-August, up from 233 and 255 patients treated during the same periods in 2019 and 2020, respectively. Though the vast majority of gunshot patients came from across King County, Harborview also treats patients from neighboring counties and states.

While the greatest increase was seen in gunshot patients ages 20 to 29, Bulger said doctors this year have treated five patients under 10 and 19 patients over 60. Last year, they treated one patient under 5 and nine patients over 60.

Though typically around 10% of patients who make it to the hospital alive have later died, she said the mortality rate is now around 13%, possibly indicating a greater severity in injuries.

The impact of gun violence on communities of color, especially on Black people, “is about as predictable as vaccine-mandate outrage,” said Sean Goode, the executive director of CHOOSE 180, a local nonprofit that works to divert young people from the legal system.

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“This cocktail of misfortune that’s been served to all of us [during the pandemic] has had a disparate impact on the people who’ve [historically] been marginalized,” said Goode.

Though Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine announced more than $3.5 million in funding for a new county pilot project — the Regional Peacekeepers Collective — and other gun prevention strategies this summer, it’s going to take time to hire and train staff and implement programming, according to Satterberg and Goode.

The collective is designed to engage with young people considered most likely to become victims or perpetrators of gun violence. Young people can be referred to the program by officials at Harborview or the prosecutor’s office and by outreach workers with community-based organizations like CHOOSE 180 and Community Passageways.

“Unfortunately, we did not have the supports in place before the pandemic to meet the need as it arose,” said Goode, describing the pre-pandemic infrastructure of community-based groups doing gun violence prevention and intervention work as one being “held together with tape and sticks.”

Given all the stressors of the past 19 months, it’s no surprise “that it cracked,” he said.

But whether responses to gun violence come from policing, prosecution or community-based programming, they’re all just “stopgaps” or “pauses” meant to mediate harm that’s really caused by the conditions people are living in, Goode said.

Just as a vaccine won’t prevent someone from getting the coronavirus but can reduce the severity of symptoms of COVID-19, Goode said programming won’t stop gun violence, though it can reduce the likelihood that young people will become victims or perpetrators of that violence.

“We need to create the conditions where gun violence doesn’t thrive,” by addressing inequities in public education, housing, employment opportunities, health care and access to healthy foods, he said. “We have to have a bigger vision of how we can stop it altogether.”

Under a pair of tents pitched in the corner of the Garfield High School playfield, others involved in the Regional Peacekeepers Collective gathered Tuesday evening to demand politicians stop talking about gun violence and start dedicating more funding to intervene and prevent violence and provide greater support to communities of color.

It’s time, they said, to start treating gun violence for what it is — a public health problem that can’t be cured by policies and laws that end up victimizing the very communities they want to help.

“We need to address this the same way we as we have the pandemic,” said Orlando Ames, with the Freedom Project and a trained interventionist with the collective. “Our community has been to more wakes and funerals due to gun violence than we have due to COVID.”