One Saturday night in May 1993, on 36th Street in the heart of Hampden, two young guys — one with a ponytail, the other with a “Dumb And Dumber” pageboy — got into a fistfight after a wedding reception. I don’t recall what sparked the brawl — a crack about hair maybe, or perhaps a tussle over the bridal bouquet — but it spilled into the street and ended with police arresting the guy with the pageboy.
On his day in court, when the defendant stood for sentencing, his lawyer, Steven Wyman, asked the judge to consider in mitigation something “refreshing” about the case.
“Refreshing?” District Court Judge Carol Smith asked.
“No guns,” Wyman, a future judge himself, said. “A real fistfight like when we were kids.”
And nobody died.
In 1993, Baltimore ended up with 353 homicides, most of them by gun. It was the worst year for city killings in a decade of incessant violence. No wonder Wyman suggested that his client deserved credit for being unarmed.
That old story from Hampden shows how long Baltimoreans have been nostalgic for days when the nonsense that inevitably comes between people left only black eyes and busted teeth, not mortal wounds. That was back when the country had more people than guns; back when teenage boys would punch and wrestle, not load and fire; back when men had the guts to face other men with fists instead of Glocks.
But that time is long gone.
And while I wish I could offer some optimism about an end to our current misery — not just in Baltimore but in many places, urban and suburban, across this troubled country — I don’t see it. I don’t know what would cause the cycle to end. I’m as pessimistic as I’ve ever been about it. There are just too many guns already. More are being sold every day, legally and illegally, and it’s happening in the aftermath of the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol and amid supercharged political divisions.
Mass shootings already are commonplace. The one in San Jose last week left 10 people dead, and there have been at least nine since then, according to the Gun Violence Archive. (The nonprofit GVA, an online resource center, defines a mass shooting as one having “a minimum of four victims shot, either injured or killed, not including any shooter.”)
In Baltimore, most of our homicides occur one at a time so we don’t think of them as mass shootings — the sudden killing of people in groups at work, at school, at prayer or play. And yet, the Baltimore homicides have a cumulative effect, over time, on the municipal psyche. We become inured to violence as part of everyday culture; it partly defines the city. It is so incessant, we either don’t think about it unless it directly affects us or we think about it fleetingly as a kind of civic obligation.
In the 45 years I’ve lived and worked here, crime has been a wind that never stopped. There were times when it dropped to a light breeze, but mostly the wind was ceaseless; you felt it every day.
Trying to stop gun violence on the scale that’s needed seems like a hopeless exercise. Even when police make homicide arrests, the shootings continue.
There were nine men shot to death over Memorial Day weekend, three of them in an apparent gun battle in Park Heights. As of Tuesday morning, there had been 136 homicides in the first 151 days of the year. Additionally, police reported 267 nonfatal shootings.
It’s obvious that guns are readily at hand to resolve any bit of nonsense that comes between people.
For years, we were told — or, after a while, just assumed — that most homicides are related to the commerce in illegal drugs. Heroin and cocaine have been around for decades. Crack hit Baltimore in the late 1980s, and it was linked to the high rates of homicides through most of the 1990s. So it’s natural to assume that the high rates of homicide these last six years are related to fentanyl sales: competition for customers, low-level dealers being robbed and shot, customers being shot for not paying their bills.
But it’s clear that guns are not merely used by drug dealers. They are used by husbands and boyfriends who abuse women. A lot of gunfire comes from the retaliation contagion; guns are used to settle personal scores — guys dissing other guys, guys facing fire over some old beef when they come out of prison.
All of these scenarios stem from dark human emotions and conditions — anger, narcissism, greed, jealousy, desire for revenge, desire for power. Given human nature, with guns so easily available now, it’s hard to see how this ends.
I’ve pushed intervention efforts in this column — helping at-risk kids, giving jobs to ex-offenders, supporting Safe Streets conflict interrupters, convincing repeat offenders to drop out of the cycle of criminality before they get killed or go back to prison. I declared the war on drugs a failure and advocated that we open more hospitals for the treatment of addictions and mental illness.
But all of those efforts seem overmatched or offset by the easy access to guns and the violence they make possible. We’re in a cycle, allowing the same conditions year after year to spawn the same horrors year after year. It defies all logic.