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Dan Rodricks: ‘Do something!’ a heckler told Baltimore’s mayor. With so many guns, so many violent people, do what? | COMMENTARY

A neighborhood resident walks around a fence that was knocked down when a Baltimore Police officer was shot and crashed through the fence into Curtis Bay Park early Thursday morning.
A neighborhood resident walks around a fence that was knocked down when a Baltimore Police officer was shot and crashed through the fence into Curtis Bay Park early Thursday morning. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

The shooting of Police Officer Keona Holley took place about 90 minutes after midnight on a wide street in Curtis Bay, a community on the southern rim of the Baltimore waterfront that has been hit hard over the years by the loss of industry, the concentration of poverty, environmental pollution and the ravages of the opioid epidemic.

The officer’s car was parked where neighbors often see it — in the 4400 block of Pennington Avenue. Apparently, after being shot, Ms. Holley tried to drive the car, turned hard to the left, crossed the street and slammed through a chain-link fence and into a playground. The crash left the fence hanging at a dangerous, chin-clipping angle over the sidewalk, and in the sidewalk was a large hole where a lamppost had been. There was yellow police tape across the opening in the fence. By 7 a.m., truck traffic on Pennington Avenue was fairly steady.

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Curtis Bay is part of the blue-collar backstretch of Baltimore, with oil tanks, railroad tracks, truck shops, a firehouse, coal piers and beat-up roads. A massive warehouse is under construction along Curtis Avenue, a street that runs parallel to Pennington. The front porches of several houses were decorated for the holidays; others were abandoned and decorated with auction notices. There is no supermarket, but a couple of corner groceries and several bars. Frank’s Bay Tavern, just a block from where the officer was shot, has an all-day happy hour.

This is a remote area of the city near the interstate highway, and after midnight, you can imagine that it’s pretty desolate. But a police officer was on duty there because that’s what officers are detailed to do in the troubled corners of this sprawling city, at all hours. And awful things can happen, at all hours.

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Whatever the motive for the shooting of Officer Holley, before all facts are fully known, there is that one fact: a gun made it possible — another gun in the hand of another someone intent on using it violently against another human being or himself. It happens hundreds of times a year in Baltimore; it happens tens of thousands of times a year across the country.

The United States has more guns than people, and in that way we’re unique in the world. Estimates have the number of guns in civilian hands headed toward 400 million. We have a gun problem, though people who complain the most about crime and lawlessness never acknowledge how the mass of guns — legal or illegal, lost or stolen — helped to create a nation of daily traumas.

We’re at this point in our history, with homicides spiking in numerous communities, for two reasons — millions of guns and an epidemic of violence.

I wrote about this in my last column, and the next day we awoke to the news of the shooting in Curtis Bay.

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The motive for the shooting almost doesn’t matter. I’m just a weary citizen looking at the result and what made it possible. Hatred, anger, revenge, a severe mental illness, orders from a criminal accomplice — whatever the motivation of the shooter, the gun made the act possible. Made it easy.

This time the victim is a police officer, next time any of us.

While the amount of firearms in this country is deeply disturbing, equally disturbing is the huge number of people who are likely to access them and use them — either premeditatively or impulsively.

Violence is all around us, in criminality and in the culture. We’re like the proverbial frog in the pot, not realizing the heat has been turned up. We’ve grown used to guns and violence, grown used to a Congress that won’t do anything about it, even as the deadly combination erupts daily, sometimes causing mass casualties.

On Saturday, after a man shot and killed his girlfriend in South Baltimore, the city’s mayor and police commissioner did what they’ve done so many times in the last year: Brandon Scott and Michael Harrison appeared before news cameras and reporters to provide details of a killing and to express sympathy for the victim and outrage at the act. Some residents gathered near the corner of Marshall Street and Fort Avenue and one of them heckled Scott. “Do something!” the heckler admonished the mayor.

As if the mayor had done nothing on the crime front — not true — and as if the mayor, or police officers, can know when some angry stressed guy is going to walk into a rowhouse and put an end to his problems with a gun.

Same goes for the city’s chief prosecutor, Marilyn Mosby, though she deserves what she gets in public criticism. When she ran successfully for Baltimore state’s attorney in 2014, she blamed the incumbent, Gregg Bernstein, for a relatively modest increase in homicides, then in the low 200s annually. Every year since, during Mosby’s tenure, Baltimore has had 300 or more homicides.

While the state’s attorney can make a dent in violence by securing lots of convictions of repeat violent offenders and getting criminals — “bad guys with guns,” an effective former police commissioner called them — off the streets, there’s still all the rest of it: Domestic violence, rash violence, violence resulting from untreated mental illness, fights that once ended with black eyes ending in funerals.

All of these daily horrors, in all forms, will continue unless we have a national reckoning: We have a gun problem, yes. But we have a violence problem among too many of our fellow Americans.

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