KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- "That's where I got shot," Rashad Woods said, nodding at a convenience store in Knoxville's "gun zone." There were bullet holes in the walls of the church. Nearby was a closed nightclub where several people died.
"There was a time when I didn't feel comfortable standing here," Kodi Mills, 45, said. "But this time is passing."
The men work for Turn Up Knox, a long-standing outreach program that cares for children and defuses situations that can escalate into violence. That's central to the Tennessee city's efforts to combat a rising number of textbook shootings.
In recent years, research reviews have begun to show that there is enough evidence to say which public health interventions prevent shootings and which do not, and which need further research. Knoxville is one of a growing number of cities working with researchers to develop an evidence-based plan to stop the bleeding.
Knoxville's program was a response to a dramatic increase in shooting victims and included police changes and other activities. However, it does not count on the new gun restrictions. This was important because Tennessee had repeatedly advocated for loosening gun laws.
"I wanted answers," Knoxville Mayor India Kincannon said. "I wanted to be able to fix it."
More recently, the almost non-existent research on gun violence prevention has seen a bit of a boom in the wake of rising shooting deaths, increased funding and growing support.
Two decades ago, only about 20 American researchers were working to prevent gun violence. Last fall, more than 600 people gathered in Washington, D.C., for the largest national conference ever held on this topic. An even larger attendance is expected at the conference this fall.
Funding still represents only a fraction of spending on other major causes of death. But research in recent years has "just exploded," said Rebecca Cunningham, a gun violence researcher at the University of Michigan.
The play deals with the worst gun violence in decades. ScientistsassessmentLast year more than 48,000 people were killed by guns and gun homicides, and suicide rates haven't been seen since the early 1990s. Shootings are nowmain reasondeaths of American children and adolescents.
While some important questions remain, there is a growing consensus about which programs and policies matter and which do not.
Accordingassessmentby the Rand Corp., effective measures include laws that allow charging adults who allow children to have unsupervised access to guns, well-enforced background checks, and rules that prohibit gun possession by people subject to domestic violence orders.
Measures that don't: Standstill and concealed carry laws, studies of which consistently show an increase in gun homicides, and gun buyback programs that have been shown to have little or no impact on crime.
About 16% of Knoxville's population is black and about 40% live in poverty, many in East Knoxville where gun violence has increased.
As in other US cities, violence has increased during the Covid-19 pandemic, when adults are out of work, children are out of school and people are anxious.
"It's been a very turbulent time," Mayor Kincannon said.
Before the pandemic, the number of homicides hovered around 20 a year. That number rose to 38 in 2020 and rose again to 41 in 2021, giving Knoxville a gun homicide rate comparable to Chicago.
As the shooting escalated, Kincannon turned to Thomas Abt, whose book Bleed Out describes a plan for cities that involve police and community organizations working together.
Most importantly, Abt's program does not assume that policymakers will take action to limit access to guns. It was attractive because Tennessee's government is moving in the opposite direction.
In 2021, the state began allowing people to carry handguns — visible or concealed — without a permit. This year, the minimum age for carrying handguns was lowered to 18.
Even AFTERmass shootingthat killed three children and three employees at a Nashville elementary school this year, the Republican majority in the state legislature has resisted calls for stricter gun laws. Two black representatives who protested inaction wereexpelled.
Governor Bill Lee, a Republican, openedspecial legislationsession this week on public safety. But many Republican lawmakers rejected his main measure, which was to take guns away from those deemed to be an extreme danger to themselves or others.
Kincannon supports expanded background checks and other gun control measures, but has said Knoxville's efforts aim to make a difference "no matter what happens with the law."
Several cities have begun seeking partnerships with gun violence prevention experts, including Muskegon, Michigan, which has partnered with the University of Michigan.
Knoxville was the first city to join the Abt program at the Center for Violence Reduction Studies and Practice at the University of Maryland, which, in collaboration with an outside researcher, analyzed violent crime there.
The analysis contained several surprises, Knoxville Deputy Police Chief Tony Willis said.
The average age of the shooting suspects was 28 and the victims 29, an unexpectedly high percentage of people "much older than I expected," he said.
Willis said only 12 percent of homicides involved gangs, far fewer than predicted. This suggests that gun violence is often a personal dispute where mediation can be restored or avoided before the shooting.
The study also confirmed police records showing the most gun violence occurred in a few "hot spots," primarily in East Knoxville, leading to a plan to initially focus police and community efforts on a nine-block area.
Church leaders and a range of community organizations are involved in the project. There have also been changes at police headquarters, with a new Chief Constable, a detective unit dedicated solely to homicides and shootings, and officers to patrol high-fire areas.
The goal is to increase public confidence in law enforcement, which has been low and sometimes abysmal. A particularly worse time was in 2021 when a police officerkilled a studentin the bathroom at East Knoxville High School.
“The community has undoubtedly raised concerns about the actions of the police. [...] Frankly, there's still a lot of discussion," said LaKenya Middlebrook, the mayor's lead on the issue.
Kincannon said she knew police "couldn't handle this alone."
"We would like someone to be killed in the middle of the day, with a large number of witnesses, but no one wanted to talk," he said. "That means we need more community partnerships to build trust."
Even before the investigators' analysis was complete, the city funded Turn Up Knox, a nonprofit led by 32-year-old community activist Denzel Grant.
It uses ex-offenders, survivors of violence and other community members to identify those most likely to be shot or become a shooter in the future. They mentor teenagers, run a lawn business that employs children, and teach families how to mediate conflicts and deal with the trauma of shootings.
Sometimes, when someone is in danger of being the victim of a revenge shooting, they give them a bus pass for a few days out of town.
Such help can be critical if integrated with reliable policing, responsive mental health services and other community efforts, Abt says.
It's too early to tell if the steps taken so far will make a difference in Knoxville.
There were 36 homicides last year, up from 41 the year before. But gun homicides have spiked across the country in the last year, and experts aren't sure why. Knoxville had 15 homicides in the first six months of this year, up from 18 in the same period last year.
Some experts have mixed feelings about Knoxville's approach.
Abt is "highly respected" and focuses on immediate measures to reduce gun violence, but does not emphasize long-term programs to alleviate poverty and racial disparities, said Jim Mercy of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The program also does not directly address gun suicides, which outnumber gun homicides.
Some East Knoxville residents note that there are few stores and safe places for children to play in the area and that summer job opportunities are limited.
"Kids have to have something to do," said Chloe Isom, 41, who lost two sons to gun violence last year. In September, 16-year-old JaBari was killed, followed two weeks later by 20-year-old Stephen.
The city government has increased the number of summer youth programs, benefiting hundreds of children. However, they acknowledge that much remains to be done and that Turn Up Knox needs more resources and training. In addition, Kincannon faces the qualifiers on Tuesday.
"If he doesn't get re-elected, it's going to be a terrible situation," said Terry Walker-Smith, 58, who works with Turn Up Knox and lost two sons to gun violence in 2007 and 2009.
Charlene Roberts' 25-year-old daughter, Jessie, was killed by a stray bullet in 2019 while sitting in her car at a North Knoxville fast food restaurant. Her son Kevin, 33, was killed in 2021 in a shooting at a birthday party.
She is now raising Jessie's son, Princeton.
Princeton is a quiet, basketball-loving kid who just started sixth grade and looks a lot like his mother. Hanging on his bedroom wall is a "Brightest Smile Award" certificate given to him by his teacher a year before his mother died.
In addition to losing his mother and uncle to violence, his father is in prison. His grandmother claims that Princeton was bullied at school. Princeton remembers a terrible day when he saw people with guns in the street.
"I'd rather they didn't let people have guns," he said. "I just don't want to get hurt one day."
His grandmother says he's resilient and "amazing," but at the same time he's changed.
"He always had the biggest smile, just like his mother," she said. "He breaks my heart. Now he's faking a smile. That smile isn't there anymore.
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