Editor’s note: The names of youth sources in this story have been changed for their safety.
When Joe, a 21-year-old high school student from Minneapolis, was shot last November, he was sure someone was trying to kill him. He knows who shot him and is sure it was gang-related, but he doesn’t want the police involved.
“Let’s just say I wear red a lot,” he said, hinting at his own gang connections.
ThreeSixty Journalism is nonprofit youth journalism program based at the University of St Thomas in St. Paul. It is committed to bringing diverse voices into journalism and related professions and to using intense, personal instruction in the craft and principles of journalism to strengthen the civic literacy, writing skills and college-readiness of Minnesota teens.
Joe’s story reflects who’s most likely to get shot in Minnesota. According to Jon Roesler, an epidemiologist with the Minnesota Department of Health, most victims of gun assaults in Minnesota are young men living in North Minneapolis.
“It’s youth and young adults who are bearing the burden,” Roesler said.
In the first six months of 2010, 119 people in Minnesota were assaulted with a gun. Seventy-three of them – 61 percent – were men ages 15 to 24, according to hospital data collected by the state health department.
Statewide, most gun injuries are accidental or self-inflicted. But assaults, not accidents, cause most gun injuries in the seven-county Twin Cities area.
Don Samuels, who represents North Minneapolis on the Minneapolis City Council, cites many reasons -including high drop-out rates, a very young population and a large drug trade – that young men in North Minneapolis are most likely to be victims of gun assaults.
“You have this atmosphere of potential violence” where teens involved in gangs and drugs have to demonstrate the ability to be violent and intimidate other people, he said.
“You combine that with the fact that 80 percent of the families in North Minneapolis are headed by single parents. The absence of the traditional defender (the dad) causes boys to seek protection elsewhere, in each other. So they start forming gangs,” Samuels said. They also have easy access to guns also contributes, he said.
But some victims are just in the wrong place.
Sara, 20, carries the burden of losing her older brother to gun violence and almost losing her 17-year-old younger brother. Both were shot at parties. Police classified both incidents as gang-related, but Sara doesn’t think so.
“They were in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Sara said.
In response to a surge in gun violence in early 2010, Minneapolis launched a program called Project Exile. The program targets repeat violent offenders by catching them with weapons and using strict prison sentences to get them off the street. According to the city, the program contributed to a drop in gun violence in Minneapolis.
“The source of the spike in violent crime in early 2010 was a relatively small number of young adults who had easy access to guns and drugs,” according to a press release on the City of Minneapolis website.
It’s not the first time there’s been a surge in gun violence in Minneapolis. In the mid-1980s, there was a rise in gun violence due to the crack epidemic and another in 1995, according to Roesler. The city was called “Murderapolis” for a time.
Then and now, government officials responded. “There were things going on in Minneapolis, violence prevention activities,” Roesler said of 1990s. “Everyone pulled out all the stops because our youth were dying and we wanted this to end.”
Samuels described what’s been done over the past two years. Minneapolis didn’t have enough parole officers to find all the people with warrants and parole violations, he said. “They became kind of outlaws on the street. A lot of them were the leader or the alpha types who were most likely to inflict violence.”
The city sought help from Hennepin County and federal officials. A youth apprehension force was formed and helped locate violent young men who were evading arrest. After crime spiked early last year, Samuels said officials realized that some Hennepin County judges were not giving out severe penalties to felons who were caught carrying guns. So federal prosecutors began bringing federal charges with penalties of up to 15 years in prison. According to Samuels, this has led some county judges to impose tougher sentences.
A truancy prevention center in city hall and counseling offered to gunshot victims treated at emergency rooms at North Memorial and Hennepin County Medical Center have also helped, he said.
Now, city officials are working on a new emergency response system. If a young person is killed in Minneapolis, a team of people from public schools, neighborhood clinics, the city and University of Minnesota will reach out to people connected to the victim and perpetrator. They plan to offer counseling to help teens grieve and not just turn to anger and vengeance. Samuels calls it “preemptive outreach.”
“I feel like this whole gun thing needs to be changed,” Sara said. “People want to feel protected but at the same time, people should open their eyes.” She believes that only people in law enforcement should be able to have guns.
Joe bought a gun on the street when he was 15 because he wanted to feel protected. He took it with him to school, the grocery store, even to church. He eventually committed armed robbery and second-degree assault and spent five years in prison.
He has a son now and says he doesn’t want him to end up involved in violence. Even though he says he’s a gang member for life, Joe would like to change. He plans to travel between Minnesota and Wisconsin in order to avoid gang issues.
“I’m just staying away from it,” Joe said. “Life’s too short to fear nobody, I don’t want to worry about that stuff.”