Katrina Grady was driving home from her mother’s house on the west side of Birmingham, Alabama, in May when she saw a car on the side of the street, its airbags deployed, so she stopped to see if anyone needed help.
“I’m the type of person, I got to help,” Grady said. “I’m a certified nursing assistant.”
Then people in the neighborhood started shouting, “Get down,” and “Here comes the car that started shooting at this vehicle,” she said.
Grady hit the ground with bullets flying around her when she heard her daughter scream that her sister had been shot.
“I froze up because I couldn’t believe my baby just got shot,” Grady said.
It seems a miracle that 8-year-old Kaitlynn — who was shot in the head and arm — survived.
“We were just trying to help someone and boom! There it is,” Grady said. “I never would have thought I would be in this situation.”
In Birmingham, though, it isn’t an unheard of situation. In 2020, Alabama’s largest city saw the most homicides in 25 years, with 122 people reported killed, and murders are up 16% so far this year over the same time last year, according to police data.
And Birmingham isn’t alone. Major American cities saw a 33% increase in homicides last year in what police chiefs, including Birmingham Police Chief Patrick Smith, called a “perfect storm” — the civil unrest that followed George Floyd’s death, the economic shutdown and other disruptions — including to the judicial system — caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“What we’re seeing now is an ongoing result of a lot of that,” Smith said.
Birmingham police said a gun is almost always involved in homicides, and law enforcement is dealing with an unprecedented number of guns on the streets.
“It’s so easy to get a gun,” said Birmingham Officer Truman Fitzgerald — easier than getting a cell phone, he said.
“It’s just this over abundance of guns and the fact that we no longer have that argument or fist fight in the backyard anymore,” said Smith. “It’s an argument that leads directly to a handgun, something that we haven’t seen in a long time.”
Smith said his officers are dealing not just with an overabundance of guns, but of high-powered assault weapons on the street that are contributing to the rise in homicides in the city.
According to Everytown for Gun Safety, Alabama has the third-highest rate of gun homicides and gun violence in the nation, and an AL.com analysis of homicides in Birmingham found the city had the second-highest rate of homicides per capita behind St. Louis, Missouri.
By the end of June, the city had taken 1,405 illegal guns off the streets, Mayor Randall Woodfin said last month.
In April, four children were wounded in a shooting in a Birmingham park Easter Sunday after an argument between two groups of men led to dozens of gunshots. A woman was killed in the shooting.
Then, after Kaitlynn Grady’s shooting, Woodfin announced a cash incentive to try to get information that could led to the arrest of the shooters: $25,000 for information regarding each of the five child shootings, funded by area churches.
“That’s how much emphasis we’re placing on enticing and getting citizens, witnesses to come forward,” said Woodfin, who lost a brother and a nephew to gun violence.
“We want to decrease crime. We need the community to help us get these killers off the street,” Woodfin said.
But police cannot do it alone, Woodfin said, and there is no way to “arrest ourselves out of” the increase in homicides and gun violence.
“We need community partners, need the federal government, we need the faith community, we need the nonprofits and for-profits, everybody has to be at the table with this crisis that exists right now in America, because it’s happening in all of our cities, small, medium, large,” Woodfin said.
Grady said more police in the high-crime areas might help.
“I’m hearing gun shots every day,” she said. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t hear it.”
And she’s heard — and had — enough. Grady has lived in the city all her life, but now she’s ready to get out, whether it’s moving to the city limits or to another state.
“I’m just willing to move on,” she said.
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