Crime

‘National shame’: Missouri leads U.S. in rate of black homicide victims — again

Tirrell Flag didn’t realize a bullet had ripped into his lower abdomen until he picked up a phone call from his girlfriend and tried to answer.

He couldn’t speak.

“I didn’t have no breath to even respond,” Flag recalled, about a month after he was shot during a confrontation with several men near 67th Street and College Avenue. “I just didn’t know what had hit me. It burned,” he said. “But God shielded me.”

Flag, 28, was with friends, armed with handguns, when they saw several men who they didn’t think belonged in the neighborhood. Tempers flared. Shooting started.

Flag was one of the lucky ones. He escaped with his life.

Many others have not been so fortunate in Missouri, a state that for most of a decade has ranked No. 1 in the nation for its rate of black homicide victims, according to a study released by the Violence Policy Center, nonprofit that researches gun issues.

Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith pointed to the statewide problem in a blog post Thursday, after a violent week in Kansas City that saw a man dead in a shootout with a Wendy’s employee and a woman killed by a stray bullet at a First Fridays event.

The state’s three biggest cities — Kansas City, St. Louis and Springfield — ranked in the top 12 most dangerous cities in the United States, according to a 2018 list compiled by USA Today.

The reason, he suggested: Missouri’s loose gun laws.

“If you want to hunt an animal in Missouri, you must attend a hunter’s safety education course and obtain a license,” Smith wrote. “But recent state legislation has removed any requirements on carrying or using a gun around people.

“Now anyone 19 or older can legally carry a concealed weapon with no training in Missouri. Doesn’t it make sense for those who want to carry guns around people to do so with proper training?”

This week, Kansas City police investigated eight homicides and 13 nonfatal shootings.

The consequences of the violence are not shared equally in the city, as shown in Kansas City Police Department data. This year, more than 80 percent of the city’s 90 homicide victims were black.

Across the state, black people are killed at a per capita rate nine times the overall national homicide rate, according to the Violence Policy Center.

After taking office Aug. 1, Mayor Quinton Lucas talked about the violence problem almost every day in interviews, news conferences, public forums and on social media, as one shooting followed another. Four people were killed in four days in the city during one stretch.

“It shows for us, we almost have a genocide of the black community right now,” Lucas said. “I think it is something far more important than streetcars, airports and any other things we are talking about.

“We need to talk about how we can get our hands around our violent crime problem.”

‘National shame’

As a 28-year-old black man in Kansas City, Flag is among those most at risk.

Born and raised here, Flag excelled as a shooting guard for the basketball team at Central Academy of Excellence. But he rejected the college scholarship offers that filled his mailbox.

“Whatever I wanted to do, I could have did it, but instead I choose to go a different route, run the streets with my friends and all of that, being a disobedient kid,” he said. “It’s you live and you learn.”

For a time, the father of five worked in the warehouse of a business that sells store fixtures.

The July 11 shooting kept Flag in a hospital bed at Research Medical Center for nearly a month. The gunman’s bullet sliced into the left side of his lower back and punctured his lung.

Surgeons removed his spleen and half of his pancreas. Flag was released from the hospital Tuesday.

He’s now learning how to walk again.

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The man who shot Flag remains at large, police said.

Those who study gun violence note the failure of Kansas City’s crime-fighting strategies, including KC Nova, which was recently replaced with a retooled federal program from the early 2000s.

But, like the police chief, they also point to Missouri laws that allow most anyone to carry a gun anywhere without any restrictions.

“The black homicide victimization in Missouri is a crisis situation that, looking at the numbers, is only getting worse,” said Josh Sugarman, the center’s executive director. “This is a national shame that is not being addressed on the national level or in those states that see the most severe impact.”

The group’s numbers are based on unpublished FBI homicide data.

“It should be shocking to us, but it is not surprising that you have a state that has ranked so high for so many years and statewide has not taken any moves to address this issue but has in fact gone the opposite direction,” Sugarman said.

To reduce the number of black homicides, Sugarman said, Missouri lawmakers should repeal the statewide preemption so that communities can take legislative action to protect their citizens from gun violence. And elected leaders should establish a statewide homicide task force to study the factors in homicides that identify patterns and commonalities.

A spokesman for Gov. Mike Parson did not return messages seeking comment about the issue.

Other states ranking high in the study alongside Missouri were Wisconsin, West Virginia, Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky, representing a swath of both Midwest and mostly rural states.

Springfield was noted for its growing violent crime rate, homicide numbers and poverty rate for a city its size.

“Missouri is an anomaly when every one of our major cities and even minor cities ... has this problem with gun violence,” Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said recently. “We may want to take a look at what might be different about Missouri versus some other states. We might come up with different answers.”

‘Part of the problem’

Relaxed gun laws mean there are more guns in circulation, especially handguns, said Ken Novak, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Most gun crimes are spontaneous, opportunistic or retaliatory in nature, Novak said. As the number of guns in society increases, so too does the opportunity for violence, he said.

“I do not believe there is anything different about Missourians,” Novak said. “Missourians are not more violent, prone to using guns, but there are more opportunities for Missourians to possess guns, legally and illegally, and therefore more opportunities to use them for criminal activity.”

In recent years, Missouri has done away with the need to get a firearms permit or any training to carry concealed weapons.

Lawmakers lowered the age at which a person can carry concealed from 21 to 19.

Legislators approved a stand your ground law and passed a law prohibiting local government from banning open carry.

Gun owners are not required to complete a police report if their guns are stolen.

In addition, laws were passed that repealed a requirement that any handgun purchaser must obtain a permit from the local sheriff.

“Regrettably, I don’t think the Legislature is going to do anything,” said Missouri state Rep. Judy Morgan, D-Kansas City. “It is easier for people to get guns so therefore if you have easy access to guns and you get into a fight, you pull your gun out and kill somebody.”

Legislators had considered a measure that would further ease restrictions on firearms and allowed them to be carried into childcare facilities, amusement parks, bars, hospitals and other public places. The bill did not pass, but is likely to be reintroduced when lawmakers return to Jefferson City in January.

Kevin Jamison, a Gladstone criminal defense attorney and member of the Western Missouri Shooters Alliance, said he disagrees that guns are the problem.

“I just read that Missouri is at the top of the list of drug overdoses,” Jamison said. “The map for murders is nearly identical for drugs, VD, poor education, poor employment and other social ills.”

Jamison said his group has supported street lights and cameras. They also have conducted safety and legal training for gun owners.

‘Solely for protection’

Flag said the shooting changed him. He wants to become a motivational speaker and warn others, especially young black men, about the perils of street life.

“I just want them to know that life is short man,” Flag said as he rested in the living room of his mother’s south Kansas City home. “Playing with guns, running the streets, thinking you’re a thug and all of that, it ain’t worth it.”

Homicides have a devastating and lasting impact on the families and friends of victims, said Susan Wilson, a clinical psychologist who is vice chancellor of diversity and inclusion at UMKC.

Many of those caught in the web of violence lack the emotional ability to successfully mediate interpersonal conflicts, Wilson said. Slight insults between individuals can have deadly outcomes, and self-hate plays a role in the lives of some victims and shooters.

“So what happens? ‘I don’t value myself and you look like me, I don’t put much value in you. If I kill you, not much is lost because you are not worth anything,’” Wilson said.

As the city’s new mayor, Lucas said he wants those impacted by gun violence to realize someone cares about them.

On Thursday, Lucas introduced two ordinances that he said would effectively ban minors from possessing handguns in the city.

“This is my life story too, noting that having my educational trajectory got me out of the streets, kept me from that path,” Lucas said. “So, it is not like it can’t be done.

“How do we make sure that we create those opportunities for more people? And that is the sort of work that I want to do.”

Flag still plans to carry a gun.

“Will I be reckless with it?” he said. “I will be more cautious and not for the fun of it, or for show. It would be solely for protection of me and my family.

“You could get killed just walking out of your door right now and get shot, not knowing why or what happened.”

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Glenn E. Rice covers crime, courts and breaking news for The Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 1988. Rice is a Kansas City native and a graduate of the University of Central Missouri.
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