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Gun violence in Philly: ‘An everyday mass shooting,’ Temple study finds

“I’m getting used to getting shot now,” said a 22-year-old from West Oak Lane. “It’s starting to feel like a normal thing.”

Jessica Beard is a trauma surgeon at Temple University Hospital.
Jessica Beard is a trauma surgeon at Temple University Hospital.Read moreCourtesy Temple University Hospital

When Voshon Mills was shot in the leg last week, he didn’t scream or panic. He knew what to do. He’d been shot in the head, narrowly escaping brain injury, just four months earlier.

He took off his shirt, tied it around his leg, and applied pressure while waiting for the ambulance.

“I’m getting used to getting shot now,” said the 22-year-old from the city’s West Oak Lane neighborhood. “It’s starting to feel like a normal thing.”

Mass shooting events in suburban settings such as Parkland, Fla., get a lot of public and political attention. They involve multiple victims shot by the same person at one location — a shattering blow to a single community.

Yet the urban toll of gun violence is much higher — and in Philadelphia, a frequent event. Shootings in the city often take place in different neighborhoods and involve different residents. But for the victims’ communities and the hospitals responsible for treating them, having multiple bullet-ridden patients come to the emergency room all at once from various locations can be as devastating as the more widely reported single-site mass shootings.

A new study from Temple University found that Philadelphia has seen 244 clusters of three or more gunshot patients rushed to a single hospital at once in an 11-year period. On three occasions, six or more patients were brought in as a single cluster.

The study analyzed data from the Philadelphia Police Department on more than 14,000 firearm injuries between 2005 and 2015. Researchers looked at how many patients arrived at the same hospital within 15 minutes of each other — considered a patient cluster.

Seeing clusters of gunshot patients is a near daily occurrence in Philadelphia, said Jessica Beard, a co-author of the study and a trauma surgeon at Temple University Hospital. Doctors call the influx of patients “an everyday mass shooting.”

Although there’s no strict definition of what constitutes a mass shooting, it typically involves three or more victims from a single episode. By that count of victims, Philadelphia has seen an average of nearly two mass shootings every month for the last 11 years.

The study was published online in the Journal of American College of Surgeons on April 10 — the same day Mills was shot in the leg.

An elderly woman was injured in that shooting, as well. Both she and Mills were taken by ambulance to Einstein Medical Center.

Beard hopes the study helps people understand the toll of gun violence that she sees every day.

“It’s horrible to tell somebody’s mom that they've died and you can’t save them,” she said. “It’s horrible to tell someone they’ll never walk again. It’s horrible to wash blood off your shoes.”

Research shows there’s a high rate of post-traumatic stress disorder among trauma surgeons and citizens alike — a reminder of the community-wide impact of gun violence.

Shameekah Smith lost her 16-year-old son, Messiah Chiverton, after he was shot in Northeast Philadelphia on Oct. 11, 2017.

Chiverton was a junior at Frankford High School who loved playing basketball and helped coach younger kids in his Kensington neighborhood, Smith said.

“People still pass my house just to say how much they miss him,” said Smith, who volunteers with Northwest Victim Services to help other families affected by gun violence.

But Chiverton’s death didn’t spark sympathetic news coverage or political attention.

People on social media accused Chiverton of being a bully, Smith said. “People were basically saying, ‘He got what he deserved.'

“My son did not deserve to be murdered. No one deserves that.”

Beard said it’s common for people to make incorrect assumptions about victims of gun violence. But she knows many of her patients are dynamic, smart, and caring.

“People often don’t understand the human side of gun injury,” she said. “Or what it looks like to suffer.”

People who survive gunshot injuries suffer long-term consequences. Research shows violence can impact the mental health of youths for years to come.

Since Mills was shot the second time, he’s been scared to leave his house. With the weather warming up, he wants to play outside with his 2-year-old daughter, but worries that it’s too dangerous.

When he steps out for errands, Mills is on high alert. “I feel like everybody is getting too close,” he said. “Anyone who walks up behind me, I think they’re trying to shoot me.”

Mills, who has a record of minor, nonviolent crime, is trying to get therapy with the help of his parole officer.

Beard said stricter gun laws might reduce both daily shootings in the city and less-frequent suburban mass shooting events. But urban violence is driven by different factors, she said — including poverty, institutional racism that limits opportunities, and the inequity that results.

Previous research has found that the neighborhoods with the highest rates of gun violence in Philadelphia today are the same places that were redlined in the past. Redlining is a banking practice that made it harder for black people to get mortgages by denying loans in certain neighborhoods.

When the problem is multifaceted, the solution has to be, too, Beard said.

Smith and Mills agreed, pointing to a need for more jobs, greater access to mental-health services, and a platform for youths to talk about their experiences with peers as key ways to address gun violence in Philadelphia.

The city’s Office of Violence Prevention recently announced a new grant program to support grassroots initiatives to prevent or reduce gun violence among youth and young adults. Community groups can apply before April 30 for grants ranging from $500 to $20,000.

A 2017 study showed such programs can make a tangible difference. Researchers found that for a city of 100,000, adding 10 anti-gun violence community programs reduced the murder rate by 9 percent.

Beard hopes Philadelphia can see a dent like that in what often feels like an intractable problem.

“We’ve seen mass shootings galvanize people to action,” she said. “And that’s awesome. But this is just a reminder that there are everyday mass shootings we see here in Philadelphia.”