‘He’s Not Just a Number’: Are Gun Deaths Eclipsed by Opioid Crisis?

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Dameca Kirkwood

Dameca Kirkwood, mother of shooting victim Trevonte Kirkwood, speaks at an anti-gun violence rally in Bloomington, Illinois.Photo by David Proeber/The Pantagraph

On Oct. 30, 2018, Trevonte Kirkwood, 27, of Bloomington, Illinois died of multiple gunshot wounds. He was one of nine people shot and killed in the Bloomington-Normal metropolitan area in 2018.

That’s up from one gun death in 2017, and zero in 2016.

For Trevonte’s mother, Dameca Kirkwood, the official silence surrounding the deaths, in a community rocked by the deadliest year for gun violence in its recorded history, is almost as awful as the tragedy itself.

Trevonte Kirkwood

Trevonte Kirkwood was shot and killed in October. 2018. The 27-year-old had two young children. Photo courtesy Dameca Kirkwood via The Pantagraph.

“Someone has lost a life,” Kirkwood said, fighting back tears. “I feel empty that as a community we have to come to this, where we’re not talking about it. Where we’re not coming together about it.”

Seven others were wounded by gunfire last year. Neighborhoods and businesses are being traumatized by shots-fired calls and armed robberies, even when no one is actually hit.

In early February when Trevonte Kirkwood’s daughter celebrated her 6th birthday, four months after her father’s death, children took cover after shots rang out outside an apartment where she now lives with an aunt, Neise Kirkwood, who adopted her.

“We can do better than this,” Neise said.

The community’s muted response to gun violence stands in contrast to its full-throated reaction to the opioid crisis. Forty people overdosed in McLean County in 2017, and another 28 last year.

A task force was created for the opioid crisis, bringing together law enforcement, public health officials, and social service providers. A new program called Safe Passages made it easier to get addiction treatment without fear of repercussion.

Local officials welcomed input from state and national leaders on solutions to a complex problem, with numerous press conferences and public forums.

But for gun violence, reaction has come from unelected community members—like Kirkwood—as well as faith leaders and newly formed grassroots organizations such as Moms Demand Action For Gun Sense and BN Youth Activists.

There have been vigils after each shooting but, other than the arrests in eight of the nine gun deaths, no broad response.

There’s no McLean County Gun Violence Task Force.

Karen Irvin, a retired teacher and co-leader of the local Moms Demand Action chapter, said the group would welcome being part of an ongoing community-wide effort.

“I can’t wait to be part of a conversation that goes deeper than vigils and monthly meetings and canvassing for elected officials,” said Irvin, who lost one of her former fourth-graders, Egerton Dover, to gun violence in December.

“We had a unique year in 2018. And we don’t know if that’s an outlier.”

The different reactions trace back to two of the thorniest issues in American life—a constitutionally protected right to own a gun, and race—according to more than a dozen interviews conducted by The Pantagraph and GLT.

The gun lobby has successfully made guns a central part of what it means to be American, said Julie Webber, a professor of politics and government at Illinois State University who has studied gun violence.

That’s despite nearly 40,000 people killed by guns in the U.S. in 2017, the highest number in decades, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“They’re just very good at telling that story,” Webber said. “Gun control advocates have not been able to find something equally compelling.”

The Factor of Race

Race is another factor explaining the different reactions to gun violence and opioids, Webber said.

Dameca Kirkwood sees it too.

If Trevonte had been white, his unsolved murder would be all over the news every night, she said. All nine of the people killed last year were black or Hispanic, in their 20s and 30s.

“He is not a case number,” she said of her son. “He is not just an African American…He was my son. And as his mother, until I take my last breath, I will do whatever. I will keep preaching. I will keep speaking. Until the bastards who done this have been brought to justice.”

The local, state, and federal response to the opioid epidemic has been a rare bipartisan one, triggering an outpouring of resources, such as more doses of the opioid-overdose antidote Narcan for police officers.

The focus on expanded opioid treatment differs from what those addicted to other drugs experience: a path to the criminal justice system.

“It’s because of the amount of people it’s touched, and the fact that it’s not just one socioeconomic group,” said McLean County Sheriff Jon Sandage, who launched his Safe Passages program last year.

“It touches everybody from all walks of life. It’s just a devastating disease. Politically, who would be against that?”

The demographics of those killed locally by guns versus opioids illustrates that race is a factor here too. Those who overdose in McLean County tend to be white, with an average age of 42, across all income and education levels, said Coroner Kathy Yoder.

“The politicians know that for every one of these people that are going to be helped by having an understanding approach to the opioid crisis, they’re related to some middle-class Caucasian-American who’s going to vote somewhere,” said Webber.

Not everyone sees the difference between the two responses. Bloomington Police Chief Clay Wheeler pointed to last summer’s summit at Miller Park, attended by police, convening community leaders and local youths to talk about solutions to the rise in gun violence.

Wheeler said the guns-opioid comparison was unfair.

“Police departments looked toward community partners,” he said. “There were several events where community partners (and) social service agencies looked at what services they had available. There were discussions publicly and behind the scenes about the issue.”

Added McLean County Sheriff Sandage: “I think we’re giving just as much attention to the guns as we are the drugs, because when you find drugs you find guns and vice versa, usually. .

Nevertheless, part of the response to the opioid epidemic has focused on the supply, with efforts to stop doctors from over-prescribing painkillers that can be stolen and sold illegally.

There’s no parallel for the supply of guns in America.

Local elected officials and law enforcement are reluctant to tread into what could be Second Amendment territory. That’s despite evidence that stolen weapons are often used in crimes, including homicides.

In July, Bloomington Police arrested a 17-year-old woman who allegedly stole three guns from a friend’s apartment in Normal and sold one to Hammet Brown. He’s accused of using it to kill Taneshiea Brown, 20, and Steven Alexander Jr., 18, on Bloomington’s east side in June.

“By and large, all of our gun owners in McLean County are responsible. We’ve not had any cases of those being irresponsible,” Sandage said. “There are the burglaries that happen and guns get stolen. It’s always a message we have out there to lock up your weapons, and hopefully people listen.”

That reluctance to talk about easy access to guns may be changing. The Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police (ILACP) is considering creation of a new subcommittee focused on gun violence, to help inform policy debates in Springfield.

“With guns in general over the years we’ve really had no opinion on it, no response to it, unless it affected law enforcement. So it’s time we need to have the conversation,” said ILACP President Brian Fengel, who is chief of police in Bartonville.

Other communities have been more proactive to stop gun violence. Champaign, Peoria, and Springfield all have task forces on the issue. Champaign’s Fresh Start and Peoria’s Don’t Shoot initiatives are both “focused deterrence” programs, using a U.S. Department of Justice model that brings community stakeholders together and reaches out directly to at-risk youth.

The U.S. attorney’s office, based in Springfield, the Illinois capital, is often a partner in these initiatives. Sometimes it convenes the stakeholders; sometimes it’s just one of the partners. John Milhiser, the U.S. attorney for central Illinois, said he’s willing to be a partner with McLean County too if asked.

“Quite frankly, I don’t think there’s a community that couldn’t benefit from the more comprehensive approach to gun violence, violence in general,” said Milhiser, whose 46-county district includes Bloomington-Normal.

The McLean County Juvenile Justice Council (JJC) recently appointed a subcommittee on the issue of gun violence, said JJC chairman and Normal Police Chief Rick Bleichner. Camille Rodriguez, director of the McLean County Health Department, will chair that subcommittee.

Reaching Out to At-Risk Youth

Youth outreach will be key, Bleichner said.

“Although not all the people involved are juveniles, they didn’t just pick up a gun when they were 25,” Bleichner said.

Rodriguez said her department has researched the effectiveness of outreach programs on gun violence. She said one approach might be messaging that targets kids using YouTube.

“The jury is out as to the best approach. Sometimes it’s reaching out to parents. Sometimes it’s reaching the young people directly. And we want to meet and decide which is best,” Rodriguez said.

Sandage said he’d be open to a more comprehensive approach to gun violence.

“We do have a lot of different groups trying to get their message out. Maybe it would be a good idea to get them all together, in one unified message,” Sandage said.

Other things are happening more informally. McLean County State’s Attorney Don Knapp recently teamed up with Pastor Andrew Held from Bloomington City Life, a youth ministry based on Bloomington’s west side, to work directly with at-risk youth.

Last month, they took a group of 17 kids to play virtual reality games and mingle with police, prosecutors, and Public Defender Carla Barnes.

In the short term, Knapp said he hopes it makes them less reluctant to talk to police if they witness a crime.

“In the long term, whatever I can do to change what I believe to be a false narrative of distrust of law enforcement, that’s what I want to do,” Knapp said.

In the decade he’s been working in youth ministry, Held has seen a change in the attitudes of teens, many of them on the brink of committing their first crime.

“Today’s youth are apathetic. They’re not really motivated towards work or an education,” said Held.

The numbers of teens in Held’s program dropped last year as the gun violence escalated. Fear and trauma kept youth close to home, he said.

Separately, Not In Our Town, Boys & Girls Club of Bloomington-Normal, and the United Way of McLean County are working with a small group of at-risk youths in hopes of keeping them on the right track. That grew out of last summer’s summit at Miller Park.

For Dameca Kirkwood, her role of unwilling advocate took her to the steps of the McLean County Museum of History earlier this month, for an event marking the one-year anniversary of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla.

She connected one of the country’s worst mass shootings to how everyday gun violence snatched away her son—a 27-year-old father of two who loved fashion, music, and was nicknamed “Goof Troop” because of his infectious smile.

Kirkwood said stopping gun violence will require a multipronged approach, including laws that make it harder to get a gun and keep them “only in the right hands.”

Stronger family structures and better mental health services are also needed, she said.

“If you know better, you do better,” she said. “And if someone knew better, they would’ve done better, and maybe my son would still be here.”

This is a condensed and slightly edited version of a story completed for the John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Justice Reporting fellowship, which appeared in The Pantagraph and was broadcast on GLT, an NPR station in Bloomington. GLT’s  Eric Stock also contributed to this report. The full version can be accessed here.

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