When people see the words “mass shooting,” many think of a lone gunman targeting civilians. But in Cincinnati, high-casualty events usually stem from fights in crowded places.
The people injured or killed are not always intentional targets, but bystanders.
Experts say a mix of the pandemic, more guns and a lack of conflict-resolution skills have given rise to these chaotic crowd shootings, and some believe things will only get worse.
More people have guns and one expert said more shootings are almost inevitable because you never want to be the second person to draw your gun and fire, whether you’re in a crowd or not.
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On August 7, eight of the nine people who were shot on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine were bystanders in the crowd. Last summer, three bystanders were wounded when two people began shooting at each other in a July 4 crowd in Smale Park.
In 2020, almost two years to the day of the Main Street shooting, seven bystanders were shot when two armed men began shooting at each other in Over-the-Rhine’s Grant Park. Police said the shooters killed each other.
Then, there were the six bystanders shot at the Madisonville Elk’s Lodge in 2015. One of them was Barry Washington, who died.
While these events receive labels such as “mass shooting” and “active shooter,” that does not quite encapsulate what is happening.
Disputes and conflicts are common sparks in many shootings
In the Main Street shooting and others like it, a dispute between a few people becomes a gunfight with no regard for the other people around them.
The Main Street shooting on Aug. 7 and the Fifth Third Center shooting in September 2018, when Omar Santa Perez shot at people walking by until he was killed by police, are inherently different in pre-meditation and intentional targeting of victims. But both types of shootings often end up on the same lists, along with school shootings and other national tragedies.
The Cameo nightclub shooting in 2017 that left two men dead and wounded another 15 people was also reportedly sparked by a dispute between small groups. Many of the victims were bystanders in the crowded club.
This type of dispute-driven shooting isn’t isolated to Cincinnati. In May, a shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, left nine people wounded and police suspected multiple shooters. In June, two people were killed and 15 were injured outside a nightclub in Chattanooga. That same weekend, a fistfight-turned-shooting left three dead and 11 injured in Philadelphia.
Why is this happening?
Experts say disruptions to the FBI’s tracking system and the slow adoption of that system by states make tracking these shootings nearly impossible, but work has already begun on identifying and addressing the problem.
Experts and officials have pointed to three main issues: poor conflict-resolution skills, the social upheaval due to COVID-19 and the proliferation of guns. However, nearly everyone interviewed for this story acknowledged that gun violence is complex and to focus on a single cause would be problematic.
‘Majority of gun violence is sudden disputes’
“People can’t solve their difference without reaching for a gun,” Cincinnati Mayor Aftab Pureval said in the wake of the Main Street shooting. He said gun violence was moving away from drug trafficking and more violence was stemming from personal disputes.
He called for better mental-health resources and conflict-resolution training, but no specific plans have been announced for how and to whom this training would be offered. Cincinnati’s interim police chief, Theresa Theetge agreed. She said the city was exploring the possibility of partnering with outside agencies to expand services in those areas.
Pureval also pointed to other shootings in public spaces, like the shooting at Target in Oakley in May, calling that a near-miss. One person was killed in that shooting, but no bystanders were injured.
Cory Haberman studies gun violence, crime and criminal justice at the University of Cincinnati. He’s an associate professor at the School of Criminal Justice and the director of the Institute of Crime Science. Haberman said that most shootings are not planned or pre-meditated.
“The majority of gun violence is sudden disputes,” Haberman said, but the difference in these recent cases is the large crowds around the disputes.
Conflict-resolution training and cognitive behavioral therapy have been staples of gun-violence prevention for decades. Youth probation officers in Cincinnati and rehabilitation programs offered in adult jails and prisons provide a variety of programs focused on this. But expert Jeffrey Butts said the foundations of those programs have been turned on their head in recent years.
Pandemic upended gun-violence programs
Butts is a research professor at the John John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He said prevention efforts have focused on youth intervention and economic disparity.
“That was all designed for a pre-pandemic world,” Butts said. “An erosion of civilization happened with the pandemic. It seemed like society was coming apart. People were scared.”
Before the pandemic, officials knew who was suffering the most stress. During the pandemic, millions more experienced life-altering events. Haberman, too, said the pandemic likely contributed.
“There are theories that people are more on edge due to the consistent trauma they’ve experienced,” Haberman said. “They were more on edge and more willing to do things they wouldn’t do.”
Cincinnati saw spikes in shootings and especially homicides in 2020 and 2021, but homicide and shooting rates are starting to return to pre-pandemic levels.
Professor’s prediction: It’s going to get worse
Butts said this pandemic also contributed to the proliferation of guns. There was a surge in gun sales at the beginning of the pandemic. More people bought guns and more than before, he said, they were first-time buyers.
“It would make sense that those people are the least prepared to know how to handle it,” Butts said.
Alongside the surge in purchases came a number of states, including Ohio, relaxing restrictions on carrying firearms. Beginning in June, those over 21 without a criminal record would no longer have to obtain a permit to carry a concealed handgun.
“It’s going to get worse,” Butts said of the violence. “As people learn ‘I can have a gun and go anywhere with it,’ things will get worse.”
Daniel Webster, the co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions, said 25 states don’t require a permit. In those that do, the Supreme Court ruling in the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc. v. Bruen case could weaken the restrictions.
Webster said there is evidence that there has been a huge increase in civilians carrying guns in recent years.
“If you get into a fight with someone now, many will assume that there is a good chance that the person they are fighting with is armed with a gun,” he said. “You don’t want to be the second one to draw your gun and fire – no matter the situation or context.”
Solutions have to go beyond police, bar owner says
Lindsey Swadner owns The Hub at 12th and Main street. There have been multiple shootings near her bar, and she said she’s even had a gun pulled on her when she asked someone to leave the property.
“I’ve witnessed non-stop shootings,” Swadner said. “None of us can sleep.”
But Swadner said the city should be looking at solutions outside of only police. She said police cannot prevent crime.
“That’s not in their job description,” Swadner said. Police can stop but not prevent crimes, she said, “You shoot at offenders … but you can’t prevent people from fighting in the street and that escalating into gun violence.”
The city has restricted parking on Main Street during nighttime and weekend hours and will likely make other efforts to reduce the traffic and crowds on the street.
Several bars in the city have security screenings and even metal detectors in place for people entering buildings, but outdoor crowds like the one on Main Street would not be subject to that. In some other cities, police use metal detector wands to screen people coming into large events, but the designated open refreshment areas referred to as Doras that remain open night after night pose a unique challenge for those measures.
After the Main Street mass shooting, there was a rare press conference featuring both Cincinnati’s Democratic Mayor and Republican County Prosecutor Joe Deters. Both agreed that the violence was unacceptable.
Pureval said the city would take action to keep the public safe, and Deters issued a warning to those who cause trouble.
“If you want to carry a gun in Cincinnati and commit crimes, you need to be prepared to go to jail for the rest of your life,” Deters said. “If you think you can do this in Cincinnati and get away with it, you have the wrong city.”
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