Knox gun killings worsen, raising questions

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Bullets ended yet another life in East Knoxville on Saturday night, bringing a tragic end to one of the city’s bloodiest weeks since officials began keeping track of crime numbers.

The latest killing also brought the number of homicides so far this year to 21, and if the violence continues at this rate then Knoxville is well on its way to shattering last year’s record-high number of slayings.

The most recent bloodshed took place about 11:45 p.m. Saturday night at 2919 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, said Knoxville Police Department spokesperson Scott Erland. 

“Upon arrival, a female victim was found unresponsive inside of the residence suffering from at least one gunshot wound. The victim, identified as 37-year-old Constance Davidson, was pronounced deceased at the scene,” Erland said. 

Police didn’t discuss a possible motive and no suspects had been charged with Davidson’s slaying as of late Sunday.  KPD is asking anyone with information to contact East Tennessee Valley Crime Stoppers by phone at 1-800-222-8477, online at www.easttnvalleycrimestoppers.org or via the free mobile app, P3 Tips. 

The week’s first killing came on Monday, May 17, when 41-year-old Muhammad Allen was found dead from multiple gunshot wounds in his pickup truck on Louise Avenue.

Only 27 hours later and four blocks away from where Allen died, 25-year-old Patricia Hall was shot to death by her older sister, Dayeshia Hall, 32, during an argument on Sunset Avenue.

Police at the scene of Thursday night’s fatal shooting in East Knoxville. Source: KPD

On Thursday night, 28-year-old Vincent Williams was mortally wounded in the parking lot of an apartment complex at 2239 MLK Ave.. Ralphelle James, 57, was charged with first-degree murder and firearm-related charges.

There’s far more going on here, of course, than raw statistics can describe. Each number represents a human life, someone whose loss will forever mark those who loved them. The numbers also can’t hope to describe the sense of fear, anger, helplessness and frustration that any community feels when confronted with such unremitting horror.

Most importantly, the numbers don’t suggest a solution. But that doesn’t mean local officials don’t have some ideas as to what should be done, or that others don’t believe they’re headed in the wrong direction. 

The numbers 

Many polling companies and other organizations spend a great deal of time and money trying to assess the attitudes of Americans on guns. Survey results tend to differ greatly depending on how questions are framed or the nuances of a specific issue as well as the political leaning of those asking the questions.

According to the non-profit, nonpartisan Pew Research Center, roughly half of Americans see gun violence as a significant problem. There is also widespread agreement that some gun laws are good, such as those preventing the mentally ill from having access to firearms. But there are also deep divides over other proposed restrictions, such as banning assault weapons or creating a federal database. 

There are clear differences based on political affiliation, of course. It comes as no surprise that Democrats consistently tend to favor stricter gun control laws while Republicans, as a rule, don’t. Also, a person’s attitude about guns tends to depend in large part on where they live. People who live in cities or suburbs are far more likely to favor strict gun laws compared to those who live in rural areas. 

Race also matters.

“About eight-in-ten Black adults say gun violence is a very big problem – by far the largest share of any racial or ethnic group,” Pew researchers say, while only 39 percent of white Americans perceive gun violence that way.

All four of last week’s homicides occurred in the same predominantly Black neighborhood, on or near Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Austin-East Magnet High School.

Austin-East itself has played a heartbreaking role in this year’s statistics as five teenagers who were attending the school were killed by gun violence this semester. One of them was killed on school grounds in a confrontation with KPD officers, one was fatally shot as he drove away from the school and a third was killed in front of her house a few blocks away. The other two shootings were discovered in other parts of town.

No school in Knox County has ever experienced anything like that kind of loss. Since February, there have been dozens of candlelight vigils, rallies and protests to remember the lives lost and to protest the decades of social and economic neglect that has led to a 42 percent poverty rate in Knoxville’s Black community. 

If there’s any one thing that all parties seem to agree on, it’s that the violence is at least partly the result of the area’s chronic impoverishment and the drug trade that thrives in economic ruin.

 Men, women and children alike — usually from largely Black neighborhoods like those in East Knoxville or Western Heights in Northwest Knoxville — have been dying violently on the streets for generations without letup. Turn back the clock far enough and what becomes clear are the same bloody stories repeating themselves over and over again on the same blocks and street corners. In the 1990s incessant gang warfare driven by the crack cocaine trade, for instance, claimed scores of lives and injured hundreds more. 

Other than the numbers, the only thing that’s changed recently is that there seems to be a concentration of violence in the so-called “Gun Zone” (loosely put, a couple of square miles around the Walter P. Taylor Homes public housing project) instead of the bloodshed being split between it and the Lonsdale area.

Police: Guns make work “difficult and dangerous”

About three-fourths of the homicides in the United States have involved guns in recent years, according to the Pew Research Center. 

Locally, however, a firearm has been the weapon used in every homicide that’s taken place so far in 2021 in both Knoxville (21) and the unincorporated areas of Knox County under the jurisdiction of the Sheriff’s Office (five). 

Sheriff Tom Spangler didn’t respond to a request for his insights on the issue. KPD spokesperson Erland, however, discussed in detail both the numbers and the department’s response.

“A quick scan of the numbers shows that there were 37 homicides in 2020, 33 of which were definitively by gunshot. There were 23 murders in 2019, 19 of which involved a firearm.” Erland said.

KPD spokesperson Scott Erland. Photo by Jenna Stambaugh.

“As for how common or uncommon it is to see this many homicides by firearm, it is a little strange that every homicide so far this year has been by gunshot,” Erland continued. “However, as you know, firearms are far and away the most common murder weapon. It is probably a bit of a statistical oddity that all of the murders this year have been by gunshot, but gun violence has also been on a steady rise nationwide over the past 18 months or so. So, one could infer that would be reflected in homicide data.”

Homicides aren’t the only crime problem that police are dealing with right now, he said.

“Based on the latest, unofficial crime data, reported crime has increased in 2021 compared to this time in 2020,” said Erland. “Property crime has seen about a five-percent increase, while crimes against persons, which would include homicides and assaults of any kind, has seen a little over a 10-percent increase. Crimes against society — DUI, public intoxication, drug/narcotic offenses, etc. — has seen the biggest increase with a roughly 50 percent increase compared to 2020. It is also worth noting that calls for service are up about seven percent compared to 2020. Again, it is important to remember that this is the unofficial, unaudited data, but it does give a general impression of what law enforcement is dealing with on a daily basis.”

When asked about recent legislative trends that have weakened existing gun laws in Tennessee, Erland pointed to a statement that Police Chief Eve Thomas issued shortly before the so-called “Permitless Carry” law was approved as expressing KPD’s overall stance. She predicted the law “will make the jobs of police officers across the state exponentially more difficult and dangerous. This bill runs counterintuitive to our department’s ongoing efforts to address the rapid increase in gun violence, and threatens to further exacerbate the problem.”

According to Erland, one strategy that KPD has adopted recently has been the creation of the Enhanced Patrol Squad, a special unit staffed by ten patrol officers and three supervisors. The initiative was born in February as KPD was scrambling to respond to the rising number of killings, especially those of Austin-East students.

The unit strives to be proactive rather than merely responding to calls, and to that end their assignments aren’t driven by calls for service. Instead, the officers go to high-crime areas and try to be a visible deterrent to illegal behavior, Erland explained.

“We’re out doing walking patrols so a lot of people can see us,” he said. “We’re looking at crime trends and recent events, so they move around on a nightly basis so they’re in place at the most active time of the day, every day.”

Gun violence as a disease 

Mayor Indya Kincannon has been quite outspoken when it comes to what she believes the problem is. 

She agrees that the chronic poverty, much of it structural, that activists point to carries much of the blame. She also points to the millions of dollars that her administration has channeled toward affordable housing, economic development and anti-violence programming as proof that she understands and wants to ameliorate the problem.

Breaking the cycles of violence — whatever they happen to be in a given community — is what City officials have hired Cities United, a nonprofit based in Louisville,Ky., to do by using the same techniques the group has used to saved lives across the country.

First responders on the scene of a shooting death on Louise Avenue last week. Source: Knoxville Police Department

At a recent presentation outlining the Cities United plan for Knoxville, officials described gun violence as an epidemic that’s best addressed using the same types of public health strategies used to combat contagious disease outbreaks. 

Kincannon has made it clear that she sees the number of firearms in society as a core element of the larger problem of violence.

“Let’s get guns off the streets, get guns out of the hands of everybody, but especially our young people,” she said in a recent interview with Hard Knox Wire.

City Councilperson Lauren Rider (4th District), the only elected official who responded to requests for comment for this article by deadline, used similar language to describe the prevalence of gun violence.

“This is an epidemic, too many people are using guns to address their problems. Gun violence impacts families and the surrounding neighborhoods. It’s past time for everyone to come to the table and break down the root causes and apply solutions,” she said.

Guns not the problem

Not everyone agrees that guns are the problem. In fact, they’d argue, the problem is that there’s not enough of them in the right hands. Local attorney Andrew Fox, for instance, has a hard time giving elected officials the “benefit of the doubt” when he hears them blame high violent crime rates on guns rather than those who choose to use guns inappropriately.

“It’s simply an emotional, knee-jerk response,” Fox said. “They’re angry, they’re sad, they’re upset.”

 For one thing, most crimes aren’t committed by law-abiding citizens who can lawfully possess a gun to begin with. 

“How many of these murders are committed by a legitimate owner of the firearm who used their firearms in an unlawful way? I bet none are, or very few,” he said. “All gun control does is punish law-abiding gun owners, those who are trying to obtain guns lawfully.”

Fox, who describes himself primarily as a divorce lawyer, is something of a courtroom folk hero to many local Second Amendment activists due to his bouts of litigation with the City over efforts to restrict where guns can be carried. 

Attempts to place the blame on firearms are deeply misguided, he said, with some experts even going so far as to argue that high rates of lawful gun ownership correspond with low crime rates. 

In fact, Fox said, minorities who live in high-crime areas need firearms more than anyone else because they are the ones most likely to be targeted by armed criminals.

“Criminals aren’t looking for a fight, they’re looking for a victim,” he said. “If they don’t have the firearms to protect themselves, they are going to become victims. That’s just how it works.”

Fox said the real culprit behind the majority of the deadly street crimes in Knoxville and other cities isn’t firearms but rather the incessant gang warfare that’s been a feature of American urban life for generations now. 

“I’m connected to someone who is deeply involved in the rehabilitation of blighted communities in Knoxville, and in a lot of these murders he would get the word from the community about what happened and it’s always someone involved in the drug trade,” he said. “That’s really what the problem is, gang violence from the drug trade…. The Drug War has so much more to do with it than guns.”

Correction: This story has been edited to correct an error in which Knox County Sheriff Tom Spangler was misidentified. Our apologies.

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at jjstambaugh@hardknoxwire.com 

Published on May 24, 2021