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Two Small US Cities Grapple With Same Big Problem: Teen Gun Violence

  • Associated Press

A makeshift memorial of stuffed animals decorates a South Side street corner, Aug. 21, 2017, in Syracuse, N.Y. The memorial was created for 15-year-old Akil Williams, who was shot earlier this summer. From 2014 through this past June, 48 youths aged 12 to 17 in Syracuse were killed or injured in gun violence.

On the surface, Savannah, Georgia, and Syracuse, New York, don't have much in common beyond their size. Both are smaller cities, with populations hovering around 145,000 people. Yet their streets share a grim reality: Teenagers are being killed or wounded by firearms at rates far higher than in most U.S. cities, according to an Associated Press and USA Today Network analysis of shootings compiled by the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive.

From 2014 through this past June, 57 youths aged 12 to 17 in Savannah and 48 in Syracuse were killed or injured in gun violence. The cities' rates of teen shootings per capita are more than double those seen in the vast majority of U.S. cities with populations of 50,000 or more.

"It's getting worse," said Barbara O'Neal, who started the group Mothers of Murdered Sons in Savannah. "They're still shooting. And they still don't care."

Barbara O'Neal holds her smartphone, which displays a photograph of her slain son, Alan O'Neal Jr., in Savannah, Ga., July 31, 2017. O'Neal started the group Mothers of Murdered Sons in Savannah after her 20-year-old son was fatally shot during an attempted robbery in 2011.
Barbara O'Neal holds her smartphone, which displays a photograph of her slain son, Alan O'Neal Jr., in Savannah, Ga., July 31, 2017. O'Neal started the group Mothers of Murdered Sons in Savannah after her 20-year-old son was fatally shot during an attempted robbery in 2011.

Her son, Alan O'Neal Jr., survived his teenage years, only to be shot dead during a robbery attempt six years ago at age 20.

The unrelenting gun violence in both cities is tearing at the adults who struggle to find answers and the kids who try, often in vain, to avoid mayhem.

Sheryl Sams speaks with a mix of weariness and disbelief about teen shootings in Savannah. She directs a program called Youth Intercept, which dispatches volunteers to the hospital emergency room to offer assistance to young people being treated for gunshot wounds.

Some successes

Sams says Youth Intercept has its share of successes; roughly 75 young people have graduated from the program since 2010. But she estimates only about 1 in 3 victims accepts the program's help.

"We have a kid who's been shot three times and his mom finally tried to enroll him, but she hasn't done all the follow-through," Sams said, adding the mother and son stopped answering phone calls and knocks at their door. "He's 14 now and he's been shot three times. To them it's a way of life."

Founded in 1733, Savannah is Georgia's oldest city, and its downtown area forms the largest National Historic Landmark district in the U.S. An estimated 13 million visitors pumped $2.8 billion into the local economy last year. But beyond the Greek Revival mansions and manicured public squares, nearby neighborhoods struggle with poverty and violence.

In a case that typifies Savannah's shootings, 17-year-old Wayne Edwards was on his way to a party in August 2014 when he got into an argument with another teen standing outside his car. That teen raised a gun and fired five shots, with one bullet killing Edwards. He wasn't shot over money or drugs; the evidence pointed to violence sparked by tough talk and bluster.

The 18-year-old shooter was sentenced to life in prison, but the crime still makes no sense to Edwards' father.

"It's still hard after three years," Wayne Blige said of his son's slaying. "You know what happened, but you still don't know why."

Worse in smaller, midsize cities

The Gun Violence Archive compiles information on shootings nationwide from media and police reports. The AP-USA Today Network analysis of those cases found that smaller and midsize cities have higher rates of teenage gun violence than major American cities. Chicago, plagued for years by teen violence, is the exception.

Wilmington, Delaware, a city of 72,000, had by far the highest rate of teenage gun violence, nearly twice that of Chicago.

Syracuse sits just beyond the vineyard-rich hillsides of the Finger Lakes region of central New York, a tourist destination of spectacular waterfalls, deep gorges and rolling hills. The city has a grittier past, built not by pressing Riesling grapes but by stamping out parts for automobiles and air conditioners.

Most of those factories have closed. The city is now known mostly for Syracuse University and its basketball team.

The university's stately halls sit atop a hill that looms over the city's South Side, a sprawling mix of neighborhoods that are often blemished by boarded-up clapboard homes sitting in overgrown lots. Many of the shootings cataloged by the Gun Violence Archive occurred here.

An anti-violence sign, created by former gang members, hangs on a window of a corner convenience store where woman and her daughter finished shopping, Aug. 21, 2017, in the South Side neighborhood of Syracuse, N.Y.
An anti-violence sign, created by former gang members, hangs on a window of a corner convenience store where woman and her daughter finished shopping, Aug. 21, 2017, in the South Side neighborhood of Syracuse, N.Y.

On one South Side street corner, mourners piled teddy bears where 15-year-old Akil Williams was shot and killed this summer during an argument. The corner is blocks away from where another 15-year-old was killed in a drive-by shooting in 2015. A year ago, 18-year-old Tyshawn Lemon was killed as he talked to a girl on her porch nearby.

'It can happen to anyone'

"When I was growing up ... if you were a regular kid and going to school and working, it didn't happen to you," said Lateefah Rhines, Tyshawn's mother. "But now it's touching everybody's lives. And I feel like if it can happen to Tyshawn, it can happen to anyone."

Researchers have linked high poverty rates to gun violence, and some South Side neighborhoods are plagued by both. They are among the poorest areas in a city with a poverty rate of 35 percent, well above the national average.

Despite the reasons for despair, some residents are not ready to give in to the violence.

Over the slap of boxing gloves at the Faith Hope Community Center, Arthur "Bobby" Harrison said some teens who get mixed up with guns are good kids, but confused. His gym offers a place where neighborhood youths can shoot hoops, lift weights or spar in a ring next to a wall plastered with pictures of local boxers and role models such as Muhammad Ali and former President Barack Obama.

Harrison, who was serving a sentence in Attica state prison during the infamously deadly uprising in 1971, provides a firm hand for the teens who train here. But the gym also is a sanctuary for teens such as Quishawn Richardson.

"It doesn't remind you of all the violence that's going on outside," said Quishawn, a lanky 15-year-old who dreams of playing basketball up the hill at the university. "It shows you that Syracuse has got some places you can go to without getting hurt."

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