How Gun Violence Spread Across Columbus, Ohio

How Gun Violence Spread Across Columbus, Ohio


The sequence of events that led to the killing of Jason Keys was so confounding that friends and family did not quite believe it until they saw the video evidence played in court.

Mr. Keys and his wife, Charae Williams Keys, were getting into their car after a Father’s Day visit in 2021 with her grandparents in a leafy neighborhood near Walnut Hill Park in Columbus, Ohio. A 72-year-old neighbor carrying a rifle accosted them in the belief, he later told the police, that Mr. Keys had let the air out of his daughter’s tires and poisoned his lawn.

Mr. Keys, who was carrying a pistol in his waistband, and his father-in-law tried to disarm the man, knocking him to the ground, while another relative ran back inside to get a .22 rifle. While Ms. Keys ducked behind the car to call 911, she heard multiple gunshots. She emerged to find her husband mortally wounded.

It took a moment for everyone to realize that the shots had come from a fourth gun across the street. Elias Smith, a 24-year-old ex-Marine, had stepped to his front door with a so-called ghost gun, an AR-style rifle that Mr. Smith had assembled from parts ordered online. Within seconds, he opened fire, hitting Mr. Keys five times.

“What are you shooting for?” a relative of Mr. Keys can be heard asking on surveillance video that captured parts of the incident.

Mr. Smith answered, “I don’t know.”

It was an encounter emblematic of gun violence in America today, a dispute that might not have turned deadly but for firearms in increasingly easy reach. And it was an episode that exemplified a striking spread in fatal shootings nationwide since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 — a period in which Americans have purchased more guns, the Supreme Court has made them harder to regulate, and many states, including Ohio, have loosened restrictions on firearms.

The block, on the far east side of Columbus, had been a haven, with little if any gun violence. That kind of peace was what had drawn Ms. Keys’s grandparents to the area decades earlier, luring them from the center of the city to what promised to be a safer place to raise their family.

And then, nearly 30 years after they had settled into a ranch house on Walnut Hill Park Drive, a burst of gunfire would take the life of Mr. Keys and with it, the neighborhood’s sense of security.

A New York Times analysis of fatal shootings across the country found that as the toll of gun violence rose during the pandemic, the carnage expanded its boundaries as well. Though gun violence remains highly concentrated, more than 47 million Americans lived within a five-minute walk of a fatal shooting between 2020 and 2023, up from 39 million over the prior four-year period. In Columbus, 41 percent of residents lived within a quarter mile of a fatal shooting, compared to 28 percent before the pandemic.

The same spread of gun violence seen in Columbus took place in other cities large and small. In Atlanta, 58 percent of residents lived near a fatal shooting during the pandemic years, up from 36 percent in the four years before 2020. In Minneapolis, half of its residents were exposed, up from a third. In Portland, Ore., it was nearly a quarter-million residents, up from 100,000.

Every day, across the country, there are dozens of deadly shootings that mostly do not rise to the level of national news, but still rend the fabric of a family, a block, a neighborhood and, in the aggregate, American life.

Anthony Pierson, a veteran prosecutor in Columbus, said that before Covid-19, he knew which neighborhoods to avoid. “Now it feels like really, no neighborhood is safe.”

Columbus has seen shootings at public parks and graduation parties, a children’s clothing shop, a Dairy Queen, a dollar store and an upscale nightlife district called the Short North. At a water gun fight celebrating the start of summer, some people brought out real guns, killing a 17-year-old girl with a college scholarship. In 2021, the number of killings spiked to 207, unfathomable in a city where most years saw closer to 100. Last year, there were 149.

In Columbus, as elsewhere, the carnage has been marked by the involvement of conspicuously young people. Last June, two Columbus boys, 14 and 16, were charged in the shooting death of a girl in eighth grade. In August, a 13-year-old was arrested after a 15-year-old football player was killed near a Lululemon store at a popular shopping plaza.

Columbus, a city considered so typically American that fast-food chains use it as a test market, is far from alone in its troubles. In New Mexico last September, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham declared a state of emergency for Albuquerque after shootings claimed the lives of an 11-year-old, a 5-year-old and a woman who confronted a group of teenagers in her stolen car. Louisville, Ky., calculated that gun homicides were costing the city $104 million a year in law enforcement, medical care and lost tax revenue.

Even though the tide of shootings and killings that washed across the country with the pandemic began to ebb last year, the improvement was uneven. Columbus closed out 2023 with more homicides than the year before — as did Dallas, Topeka, Kan., Memphis and Washington.

There is optimism that 2024 is going to be better in Columbus, which has seen homicide numbers fall dramatically so far this year, with 36 as of last week, compared with 70 in the same period the year before. Gun violence nationwide is still higher than it was before the pandemic: The number of fatal shootings in the first quarter of 2024 was 13 percent higher than it was in the same period in 2019, according to the Gun Violence Archive.

In 2022, Mayor Andrew Ginther declared gun violence a public health crisis, placing it on a par with Covid-19. Covid is no longer an emergency, but it exposed large societal rifts and left psychological scars. Gun violence may follow the same path: Even as it recedes, neighborhoods like the one near Walnut Hill Park may never feel as secure as they once did.

Some criminologists say there is no reason to think that homicides cannot fall back to the relatively low levels seen in the 20 years before the pandemic — except perhaps that there are far more guns and far fewer limits on them.

Adonis, a 14-year-old in Columbus whose life was upended by the pandemic, is skeptical. “The government, or whatever, already let too many guns go around the whole entire city,” he said. “They should have been stopping this when they had the chance to. I feel like it’s too late now.”

For more than a decade, the Ohio legislature had been scaling back gun regulations. In 2006, lawmakers pre-empted cities from passing their own gun statutes. In 2014, they rescinded a ban on high-capacity magazines.

Then, in 2019, a gunman in Dayton used one to fire 41 rounds in under 30 seconds, killing nine people and wounding 17.

The outcry that followed prompted Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, to promise changes that included expanded background checks and a “red flag” law allowing for the temporary removal of guns from people deemed dangerous to themselves or others. The proposals went nowhere.

Instead, in 2020 the state enacted a “stand your ground” law supported by gun rights organizations, expanding established limits on when a shooting can be deemed self-defense.

In 2022, Ohio lawmakers allowed school boards to arm teachers who completed 24 hours of training, eliminated permit and training requirements for concealed weapons, and barred cities from prohibiting gun sales during riots.

Proponents of expansive gun rights argue that increased regulation only makes it harder for lawful buyers to obtain guns for legitimate reasons, and that criminals will always find ways to skirt stricter laws.

In Ohio, Republican supporters of the permit-less carry bill said that there was little difference between openly carrying a gun, which Ohioans are permitted to do, and concealing that same weapon.

“Killers, rapists, kidnappers and other violent criminals don’t obey this law anyway,” said state Representatives Tom Brinkman and Kris Jordan, the bill’s sponsors, in their written testimony.

Facing a mounting body count in 2021 and 2022, Columbus tried to test the state ban on local lawmaking. The city enacted legislation requiring guns to be safely stored around children and banning high-capacity magazines. But the measures were stalled by court challenges, one by the state attorney general, a Republican, and the other by private citizens. Columbus, in turn, has challenged the 2023 state law that prohibits cities from halting the sale of guns and ammunition during riots.

“I feel like at times we have one or two arms tied behind our back trying to fight gun violence,” said Mayor Ginther, a Democrat who just began his third term. “And it can be very frustrating because the people are angry. They want more to be done.”

Guns have become a feature of life for Adonis and his friend Jason, who are both in eighth grade. “We see them every single day,” Adonis said. “But at this point, it don’t even faze us.”

Adonis and Jason described how their life had changed dramatically since the onset of the pandemic. “When we were younger it was like, you can walk out and do anything, like it’s fun outside,” Jason said. “Now you walk out, you got to be worried about getting shot.”

Both boys, whom The Times is identifying only by their first names, had agreed to an interview to talk about their friend Tauron Durham, a music-loving, witty 13-year-old who had been fatally shot in December. But the conversation ranged widely, hinting at some of the reasons violence has spread among young people.

The boys said that boredom and lack of supervision during the pandemic had given rise to a wave of Kia Boys, or children as young as 10 or 11 who learned to steal Kias and Hyundais by watching how-to videos. Stolen cars gave youths, even those well below legal driving age, the means to travel beyond their own neighborhoods. In Columbus, auto thefts more than doubled between 2019 and 2023, and stolen cars have been involved in a host of dangerous incidents, including high-speed chases and drive-by shootings.

Cars also became a focus for break-ins, with thieves increasingly finding handguns among their spoils. Between 2017 and 2021, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms says, more than a million guns were reported stolen from private individuals nationally. Stolen guns in Columbus might be had for as little as $50, according to law enforcement officials.

“Before, you could knock on the door of your neighbor and get some weed,” said Jené Patrick, a member of Mothers of Murdered Columbus Children, an anti-violence group. “That’s how you get guns now. It’s that easy.”

Though Jason and Adonis said they were spending less time on the streets, their Instagram feeds are still full of images of children posing with handguns, as well as R.I.P. posts for gun victims. One of the boys’ handles includes the initials “F.T.O.,” a profane swipe at their “opps,” or rivals.

Back-and-forth dissing on social media is common but dangerous, sometimes leading to retaliation in real life. Because of that threat, Jason and Adonis explained, people carry guns to protect themselves. “And,” Jason added, “just to show off.”

Social media, of course, knows no geographic boundaries, and people who are miles apart can feud while unwittingly posting clues to their whereabouts.

“Almost any case I have that’s a murder, aggravated robbery, felonious assault with a shooting, when we get the phone dumps there’s stuff with them posing with guns or threatening to do harm to people. It’s a constant,” said Euripides Chimbidis, a prosecutor who handles juvenile cases in Columbus. “In my view, they’re putting themselves at risk, making other kids want to come after them.”

***

As gun violence intensified and spread in Columbus, communities long plagued by violence got far worse. Tre’Von Dickson, 15 and living on the east side of the city near the Barnett Recreation Center, personally knew almost two dozen people who had been killed, according to his mother, Shawna Brady.

Tre’Von was home on April 20, 2021, when, after a day of virtual classes, he arranged by text to have marijuana delivered to the apartment.

When a minivan pulled up outside with the pot, Tre’Von ventured out to collect it. Within seconds the driver, another 15-year-old, shot at him, a witness told the police. Tre’Von pulled out a revolver and returned fire, the witness said. The other teen was hit in the leg, while Tre’Von was hit twice in the chest, bleeding to death while his cousin rushed him to a hospital.

The other teen, who pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter in juvenile court, has maintained, through his lawyer, that he acted in self-defense. Ms. Brady insists her son could not have been the aggressor. But Ms. Brady, who cares for mental health patients, admits that she knew that Tre’Von had a gun. “I work a lot — I work around the clock, and he was my protector,” she said. “He protected the house.”

If she had it to do over, she said, she would not have allowed it.

“We see this all the time,” said Malissa Thomas-St.Clair, a middle-school teacher who, in August 2020, learned that one of her former students, a 14-year-old, had shot and killed his 2-year-old nephew while playing with a revolver. With an anguished post on Facebook, she founded the Mothers of Murdered Columbus Children.

The organization has made parental accountability a key part of its message, Ms. Thomas-St.Clair said, in part because the attitude that the “man” of the family should be armed, even if he is still a child, is not uncommon.

“Every one of us has a story of if there was better accountability within our parenting, then maybe some decisions of our children would have been different,” she said. Ms. Thomas-St.Clair’s own adult son was fatally stabbed in 2013, while trying to collect on a drug debt.

In their matching camo outfits, members of the Mothers of Murdered Columbus Children have become visible participants in many of the city’s efforts to combat gun violence, which include gun buybacks, youth programs, increased funding for domestic violence shelters and more detectives devoted to shootings.

The sharp decline in homicides this year is an encouraging sign, but officials say they are up against a tidal wave of guns.

In 2020, there were 11.3 million guns manufactured in the United States for domestic consumption, more than twice the number produced in 2010, according to the A.T.F. There are also signs that more guns are vanishing from the legal market.

Between 2017 and 2021, the percentage of guns recovered from crimes that had been purchased within the previous year steadily increased, according to A.T.F. data. A short “time to crime” can indicate an illegal straw purchase intended to evade background checks, minimum age laws and other safeguards.

***

Walnut Hill Park Drive still has its broad front lawns, backyard play forts and late-model pickups parked in circular drives. But much has changed on the block since Father’s Day in 2021.

Ms. Keys’s grandparents, Verna and Cordell Williams, caught Covid-19 and died three months after their grandson-in-law was killed.

Elias Smith, the former Marine who shot Mr. Keys, no longer lives in his mother’s basement — he is serving 15 years to life for murder. His trial included evidence that he had both P.T.S.D. and a traumatic brain injury.

Robert Thomas, the neighbor who instigated the episode with his rifle, was acquitted of an involuntary manslaughter charge but convicted of aggravated menacing. He was placed on house arrest at his daughter’s home and ordered to stay away from the block.

Ms. Keys, who was wounded by shrapnel in the shooting that killed her husband, is still recovering both physically and mentally. She and her husband had both known victims of gun violence. That was one reason they lived in a high-security apartment complex, went to work, went to church and tried to “stay out of the way,” she said. It was not enough.

“Now we have people walking around who are just ticking time bombs,” Ms. Keys said. “I’ve done everything in my power to keep me from violence, but it’s chasing me.”



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