Fourth of July Garners Deadly Reputation as Mass Shootings Erupt

Washington Post photo by Bill O’Leary
Authorities search for evidence at the scene of the Brooklyn Day shooting early Sunday that left two people dead and 28 wounded in Baltimore.

The annual Fourth of July picnic in a Louisiana neighborhood named after Martin Luther King Jr. had been a festive family event until the gunfire rang out.

For 15 minutes, several gunmen fired indiscriminately into the large crowd as men, women and children dove for cover in the grass or scurried into nearby woods in search of safety. Some huddled among the trees until dawn, scared that what sounded like fireworks going off elsewhere in the city might actually be more shooting.

“How can you come to an event, that is a family event, and decide in your heart that you want to . . . unleash a hail of gunfire?” asked Tabatha Taylor, a City Council member in Shreveport, La. “You have turned the Fourth of July, Independence Day, into bondage day, where it will now be remembered for tragedy and massacre.”

Across the country, local elected officials, community activists and grieving families are asking similar questions as the nation’s most patriotic holiday steadily earns a reputation for being one of the deadliest when it comes to mass shootings.

There have been at least 21 mass shootings – which the Gun Violence Archive defines as incidents in which four or more people are killed or injured by gunfire – since the start of the month, according to the group. In all, 20 people died and 127 were injured, the group found, continuing a sharp uptick in mass shootings over the holiday that began in 2020.

Experts say the killings over the Fourth of July holiday can be traced to large gatherings, hot weather, the consumption of alcohol and a troubling trend of armed individuals having less regard for who they shoot when conflict arises. Overall, violent crime nationwide has fallen to its lowest levels since 2020, but the ongoing spate of mass shootings shows the country’s struggles with gun violence continue to show no bounds.

“When I was growing up during gang violence there were things that were off limits,” said Taylor, who grew up in the Shreveport neighborhood where Tuesday’s shooting took place. “But today, it’s like there are no limits. You shoot everybody. You don’t care where you shoot. You don’t care what time you shoot. Everything is a target.”

The number killed or injured in mass shootings during the first five days of July was comparable to the same time period in 2022, according to data from the Gun Violence Archive. Last year, 21 people were killed and another 105 wounded in 23 mass shootings. That toll includes the seven people killed and 30 others wounded when a gunman opened fire at an Independence Day parade in Highland Park, Ill.

But this year’s toll is notably higher than in 2019, when there were 11 mass shootings over the Independence Day festivities. Since that year, the number of mass shootings over what is typically celebrated as an extended holiday weekend has jumped. There were 31 mass shootings over the initial July days in 2020 and 25 in 2021.

“It’s anger, there is just too much anger going on,” said Mark Bryant, the director of the Gun Violence Archive, which is an independent group.

Criminologists have long observed upticks in violence during the hot summer months. Thomas Abt, founding director of the Center for the Study and Practice of Violence Reduction at the University of Maryland, likened it to a “practical question” of how many opportunities there are for people to interact with each other. But he said there is something more.

“We are still suffering from the hangover of the pandemic, social unrest in the aftermath of police use of force on civilians and surge in gun sales,” he said.

James Densley, the co-founder of the Violence Project, which also tracks gun violence, said the frequency of mass shootings over the holiday is also the result of more individuals having access to high-powered tactical rifles and high-capacity magazines, as well as a general trend of some people having a “lower threshold” for when they plan to use their weapons.

“It just seems the rules on the streets no longer apply,” Densley said. “So, the threshold is lower, and the availability and accessibility of firearms, and the firepower available to these people is just a lot greater than they used to be.”

The violence over the past five days occurred in both large cities and small agricultural towns.

In Salisbury, Md., seven people were shot, one fatally, at a block party Tuesday night. In Lansing, Mich., five people were shot early Wednesday after a dispute erupted at a party. Five people were also shot early Wednesday in Boston.

In Shreveport, it took first responders hours to fully assess what had occurred. Taylor, the councilwoman, said one person who was shot stayed in the woods all night before he emerged and was taken the hospital. The body of another victim was not discovered until Wednesday morning because it was located in tall grass, Taylor said.

The shootings – which garnered nationwide headlines – add to a complex picture when it comes to measuring violence. Nationwide, data collected from more than 80 police departments by The Washington Post shows violent crime across urban areas has fallen to its lowest point since the 2020. From January to May, the rates for aggravated assault and homicide have fallen below four-year averages.

The data shows summer is a clear marker for changes in the homicide rate: June, July and August have the highest averages of any month from 2018 through 2022.

But mass shootings have been rising. So far this year, there have been 356 mass shootings, according to the Gun Violence Archive. By comparison, there were 415 mass shootings in all 2019, before the country was hit by the pandemic, the riots that followed the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and national fissures that emerged during the 2020 election.

The leaders of many U.S. communities say they’ve come to fear what could transpire over the Fourth of July and have started to become more proactive to head off problems.

In Detroit, a city that has made an economic and cultural comeback in some areas, police, anti-violence community groups and experts say an uptick in summer violence can be seen when there are large gatherings and people drinking booze in the stifling heat. Frustration over jobs and easy access to guns have added to the risk of violence.

Quincy Smith, who works with the anti-violence group CeaseFire, said he and other community leaders had made a concerted effort to urge people “to leave the guns at home” over the holiday.

Detroit police also asked the public to help them by calling 911 if they notice that arguments at gatherings and July Fourth events are getting heated, “before tempers flare to the point of shooting.”

“It’s okay to walk away. It’s okay to say, ‘I’m walking away for a few minutes,'” Smith said community leaders have stressed.

Former Detroit deputy mayor Isaiah “Ike” McKinnon, who also previously served as the city’s police chief, said he’s been talking to teens and young adults for years about why they get involved in gun violence. He said there is a lack of hope for a good future that leads to a feeling of, “Let’s live for today, because we don’t know if tomorrow is coming.”

“This became the prevailing attitude,” said McKinnon, 80. “They don’t see this as the birthday of this country. They see it as ‘maybe I go to a function and get something to eat.’ They can’t think about the meaning of a holiday when they are in dire straits and trying to survive.”

The Rev. Earle J. Fisher, a community activist in Memphis, a city that is gripped by a spate of homicides, nonetheless cautioned against making too broad a connection between mass shootings and the Fourth of July. To many parts of the country, Fisher said, the issue of gun violence is a permanent fixture that has nothing to do with the calendar.

“These things happen every day somewhere,” he said. “From my vantage point, I cannot identify the uniqueness of what happened this weekend, or happened July 4, to what seems to happen somewhere in this country, every day.”