By Kevin Vaughan
Tragedies like those at Columbine and Aurora drive the public debate about guns, but the truth in Colorado is that the state experienced an unremitting loss of life involving firearms – 6,258 deaths – over the 12 years between those mass shootings.
That’s 10 gun deaths a week – every week – during that span.
And the area that experienced the most gun deaths from 2000 through 2011 was not a gang-weary section of Denver or Aurora but a southeast Colorado Springs neighborhood of 1960s tract homes, apartments and schools where postcard-perfect views of Pikes Peak frame the skyline, an I-News analysis of health and census data found.
The area is designated by the federal government as Census Tract 54.00, one of 1,249 geographically distinct districts in the state. And from 2000 through 2011, 24 of its residents died of gunshot wounds.
The next deadliest census tract, with 20 deaths, was located in Grand Junction, and another in Denver had 19, I-News found. Five of the top six neighborhoods for gun homicides were in the Denver or Aurora, while the top four neighborhoods for gun suicides were in Grand Junction, Montrose or Mesa County.
Over that span, 76 percent of the state’s gun deaths were suicides, 20 percent homicides.
“It is a public health issue,” said state Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, and the mother of a son taken by gunfire. “We pay for it in the end. Society – we pay for the medical treatment, the loss of productivity. It’s a ripple effect. When someone gets murdered or harmed by gun violence, it affects the family, it affects the community – not just that one person.”
The death toll for residents of Census Tract 54.00, part of the Colorado Springs neighborhood known as Pikes Peak Park, included 12 homicides and 12 suicides. That made it an anomaly among the deadliest neighborhoods in that it had as many homicides as suicides.
The second deadliest tract, in Grand Junction, had 17 suicides and three homicides. The tract in Denver’s Platte Park area that experienced 19 deaths had 10 suicides, eight homicides and one classified as “other” – a police shooting, accident or undetermined fatality.
Four other tracts had 17 gun deaths during the 12-year span – three in Grand Junction, Montrose and Teller County driven by suicides and one in Denver’s Montbello neighborhood driven by homicides.
The I-News investigation of Colorado’s shooting deaths found a strong relationship between poverty and firearms homicides – and no discernible link between being poor and gun suicides.
For example, the average poverty rate in 656 census tracts with no gun homicides was 10 percent. It jumped to 16 percent in neighborhoods with at least one gun homicide, to 22 percent in tracts with at least three, and to 24 percent in areas with at least four.
It was vastly different with suicides: The average poverty rate fluctuated around 12.7 percent in neighborhoods with no gun suicides and up to and including those with four or more.
In that way, Census Tract 54.00 fell in line with homicide statistics and bucked suicide statistics.
The area, developed in the 1960s, includes ranch and multi-level suburban homes, apartment complexes, a commercial district and four schools. And its 5,615 residents face serious socio-economic challenges. The median family income was $29,313 in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau – down significantly from 1980, when median family income was the equivalent of $40,010 in today’s dollars. More than 20 percent of families – and nearly 44 percent of children – live in poverty.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment data included the census tract where each victim lived but, because death certificates are not public, not the identities of those who died. I-News was able to identify many using police, court and coroner’s records and other public documents.
The loss of life in Census Tract 54.00 was a mosaic: A father who shot his teenage son while trying to teach him gun safety. A gangland slaying. Solitary suicides. A jealous former boyfriend who fired blindly through a door. Four domestic violence murder-suicides. And an utterly random shooting carried out by a Fort Carson-based U.S. Army soldier.
“Some of them, they are domestic related and they are very personal, to the very random or motivated through drugs or through property crimes or through any number of things,” said Colorado Springs police Cmdr. Kirk Wilson, whose division includes Census Tract 54.00. “There is no pattern, if you will, for why some of these homicides take place.”
Poverty, drugs and guns
Joy Kelly-Blackwell, whose sister, Leslie Brown, was murdered in 2004 by a former boyfriend, grew up in south Colorado Springs and has a sober view of life there.
“Where there’s poverty, there’s drugs – drugs and alcohol,” she said. “Where there’s drugs and alcohol, there will be guns. Therefore there will be crime.”
Poverty and guns are definitely a part of life in Pikes Peak Park – and it is nothing new.
“These children were at war,” said Rich Caruth, who managed an apartment complex in the neighborhood for years and initiated an anti-gang program. “When they’d go outside their house, they had to worry about a drive-by shooting. They had to worry about being robbed and losing their tennis shoes.”
But the neighborhood’s problems aren’t only economic. Transience is a way of life – an I-News examination of property records found that nearly 30 percent of the 1,181 single-family homes are rentals, and the neighborhood includes 772 apartment units and 131 townhome and condominium units.
People come and go often, tearing at the sense of “community” – the perception of belonging to a place and caring about it.
Katherine Giuffre, chair of the sociology department at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, knows transience – she lives next to a rental home, where tenants have come and gone every three months or four months for 17 years.
“I don’t even bother to know who they are because they’ll be out soon,” Giuffre said. “I’m not baking a banana bread and going over there.”
Poverty, transience and neighborhood violence confront the teachers and administrators at the four public schools in the tract – Centennial, Monterey and Pikes Peak elementary schools and Carmel Middle. There, the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced lunch is high – 81.5 at Carmel, 87.1 at Monterey, 90.5 at Centennial, 90.6 at Pikes Peak. The vast majority qualify for free lunches, meaning family income in the 2011-12 school year totaled $29,055 or less for a family of four.
Wendy Birhanzel, Centennial’s principal, and other educators in the area’s schools have a simple goal: Remove the obstacles between students and success. That means making sure they have backpacks and jackets, or even taking up a collection to help a family pay its utility bill.
It also means monthly events – like “Science Night” or “Movie Night” – aimed at building relationship with families.
And while data shos that the schools are safe places, they can’t escape the neighborhood around them. This spring, a student’s father was shot to death.
“That is reality,” Birhanzel said. “Homicides and shootings are not just happening to people we don’t know.”
Against that backdrop, thoughts on addressing gun deaths vary.
“We have all these laws and proposals and whatever to try and handle what’s happening,” said Dr. Manish Sethi, an orthopedic trauma surgeon at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Tennessee who frequently operates on gunshot victims. “And I just feel like we need community solutions.”
So he and a colleague won a small grant for a pilot program that teaches conflict resolution strategies in schools. The initial results were encouraging, and now they are seeking money to extend the program to 10 schools.
“Some of these children, once these things happen to them, their lives are over,” said Sethi, who has lectured on gun violence. “They’re done, and the world that they knew is gone.”
Rep. Fields applauded that kind of work. But she also touted new laws – she sponsored a measure extending background checks to private gun sales.
“I would agree that legislation is not the sole avenue … but I do think that legislation is one tool to help us address those that use guns when they’re committing crimes, and how they go about purchasing their guns, and how we regulate guns,” Fields said.
I-News senior reporter Burt Hubbard contributed data analysis and additional reporting. To read the narrative version of this story and to see additional components please go to inewsnetwork.org. Contact Kevin Vaughan at 303-446-4936 or firstname.lastname@example.org.