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April 19, 2022

Frequency of mass shootings in Philadelphia increased after start of COVID-19 pandemic

Gun violence also is affecting growing proportions of women and children, Temple researchers found

Crime Gun Violence
Philly Mass Shootings Temple Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

Higher levels of gun violence in Philadelphia during the COVID-19 pandemic led to an increase in the the proportion of shooting incidents impacting four or more victims, as well a greater proportion of women and children getting shot in the city.

Rising rates of gun violence during the COVID-19 pandemic have been widely documented around the United States. Compounding the health crisis, this epidemic of shootings has been attributed to multiple factors that created a perfect societal storm.

Increased firearm purchases during the early months of the crisis, easier access to improperly stored weapons at home, growing rates of domestic violence and the impact of broader civil unrest on policing have all been identified among the reasons for the prevalence of pandemic shootings. 

Nationally, gun violence increased by more than 30% during the first year of the public health crisis alone, with approximately 51,000 shooting victims in the U.S. between March 2020 and March 2021.

In Philadelphia, gun fatalities and shootings during the pandemic timeframe have surpassed the city's highest levels on record. Even with the return of relative normalcy in 2022, compared to the start of the pandemic, the rate of gun violence in the city has not shown any convincing signs of abating.

In a single 15-hour span last week, at least 20 people were shot, including five dead, in a series of incidents in Philadelphia. Despair and a crisis of confidence appear to have set in among city residents, who have grown leery of public officials repeatedly committing to improvements without much in the way of sustained, tangible results.

New research out of Temple University now offers a deeper look at some of the data on gun violence in Philly and the communities it has affected during the COVID-19 pandemic.

With greater frequency than in the past, many of the city's shooting incidents qualify as "mass shootings," according to the Temple study. More women and children also are represented among the victims of gun violence.

The epidemiological study, published this week in the journal Preventive Medicine, follows up on previous research spearheaded by Jessica H. Beard, an assistant professor of surgery and director of trauma research at Temple's Katz School of Medicine.

Beard and her colleagues revisited their previous examination of mass shootings in Philadelphia, published in the fall of 2019, in order to better evaluate the city's overall trends in gun violence.

The study defines a mass shooting as any incident in which four or more people are shot in a one-hour window within 100 meters, roughly the length of a city block. This is a modified version of the definition adopted by the non-profit Gun Violence Archive, which tracks shooting incidents in the United States, but instead emphasizes fatalities to define mass shootings.

Historically, the FBI once defined "mass murder" in the 1980's as any incident during which four or more homicides occur within the same event or in close geographic proximity. Federal officials have since shifted the terminology to "active shooter incident" in order to describe fluid scenarios involving gun violence.

Beard and her colleagues, including Dr. Iman Afif, previously argued that the problem of mass shootings goes underreported when only fatalities are used as a benchmark.

In the 2019 study, which looked at data on Philadelphia shootings from 2006-2015, researchers found the city had experienced 46 neighborhood mass shootings that injured or killed a total of 212 individuals during that nine-year period.

The new study analyzes shooting victims from two periods of time organized around the pandemic response.

The "pre-containment" period covers Jan. 1, 2015 to March 15, 2020, the last day before government officials began implementing COVID-19 containment measures, such as the closure of non-essential businesses. The "post-containment" period runs from March 16, 2020 through March 30, 2021.

During the pre-containment period, Philadelphia had 246 shooting victims who were harmed in mass shootings, accounting for 3.6% of all shootings during that timeframe. In the shorter post-containment period, there were 134 victims of mass shootings, but these incidents accounted for 5.5% of the city's shootings during that timeframe.

In the pre-containment period, lasting just more than five years, there were 52 total mass shootings in Philly. The post-containment period of just more than a year included 26 mass shootings. 

"It seems they have been increasing overall from the prior study’s period and even more so since the start of the pandemic," said Afif, the new study's first co-author and a surgeon at Temple. 

In an average quarter during the pre-containment period, the city averaged approximately three mass shootings. That number jumped to roughly six during the post-containment period. The proportion of mass shootings in Philadelphia was found to have increased by 53% from the pre-containment period to the post-containment period.

The most notable mass shooting incident in the city during the pandemic happened near Olney Transportation Center in North Philadelphia on March 22, 2021. Eight people between 17 and 71 years old were shot in broad daylight by a group of assailants who got out of a car near the intersection of Broad Street and Olney Avenue. None of the victims were killed and more than a year later, the crime remains unsolved.

The study found that most mass shootings tend to happen in North Philadelphia and have skewed toward the eastern portion of that area during the post-containment period. A spike in such incidents occurred during the second half of 2020.

"The increasing rate of mass shootings represents an intensification in the severity of firearm violence in Philadelphia, which will likely have a sustained impact on chronically traumatized communities in the years to come," the authors concluded.

Overall shooting victims per quarter in Philadelphia nearly doubled, from 331 pre-containment to 541 post-containment. The proportion of women shot increased by 39%, from 8.2% to 11.4% of all shootings, and the proportion of children shot increased by 17%, from 7.8% to 9.0% of all shootings. The study relied on information from the Philadelphia Police Department's registry of shooting victims, a database including all victims and locations of interpersonal firearm violence in the city.

Though the rate of shootings increased during the post-containment period, shootings during this timeframe were less likely to be fatal. About 17.3% of shootings resulted in death post-containment compared to a shooting fatality rate of 20.2% pre-containment. More shooting incidents occurred outdoors during the post-containment period.

In both periods covered by the study, the vast majority of Philadelphia's shooting victims, about four out of five, were Black men.

“Our research reveals a shift in the epidemiology and an increasing severity of interpersonal firearm violence in Philadelphia after measures were put in place to contain the spread of COVID-19,” Beard said. “Absent robust social and economic support, the containment policies likely worsened structural inequalities that already existed."

The study, which brought in researchers from several other universities, did not examine changes in violence epidemiology related to the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions, since this has occurred gradually and unevenly in Philadelphia. Previous research hasn't identified any association between the incidence of shootings and the partial lifting of such policies, the authors said.

The study notes that the deepening of the opioid crisis, which has affected a growing number of Black residents in Philly during the pandemic, may have led to more gun violence in areas where drug abuse and crime are most severe. 

Employment problems and greater levels of confinement during the pandemic lockdowns may also have contributed to the higher levels of gun violence impacting women, who have been affected by higher levels of intimate partner violence.

City officials in Philadelphia have pointed to a number of new investments in anti-violence initiatives that they hope will begin to reverse the alarming trends seen in recent years:

• $6 million to expand programs that target people most at risk of being a victim or a perpetrator of gun violence and provide connections to services, treatment and employment.

• $12 million for the Anti-Violence Community Partnership Grants, which fund community-based organizations that are focused on reducing violence through trauma-informed healing and restorative practices in the neighborhoods most affected by violence.

• More than $3 million to enhance the police department's ability to solve violent crimes and modernize police tools with forensic upgrades and policy mobility, which will facilitate the use of enhanced forensic analysis in homicide cases.

• $1.5 million to support community engagement, homicide and non-fatal shooting reviews, planning, and improved data analytics to ensure anti-violence programs are addressing the causes of violence, reaching those who need it most, and service connections are successful.

• $800,000 for violence prevention programs and supports focused on youth within the juvenile justice system, including restorative justice programming, and $1.5 million for two additional Community Evening Resource Centers, which assist Philadelphia youth who are out after a curfew.

Beard concluded that the study points to the need for a much better grasp of the specific causes of gun violence that have emerged during the pandemic.

"Only by examining the root causes of interpersonal firearm violence and gaining a better understanding of these changes that have occurred, can we address the epidemic of gun violence in the city," Beard said. "From a public health perspective, solutions could include investment in public education and employment, as well as increasing access to social services and support, such as medical assistance.”