It's been years since Fort Wayne bled like this.
In 2013, 44 people died in homicides in Fort Wayne and Allen County. That matched the largest toll of homicide deaths ever reported in a year in Allen County in 1997.
In many respects, the violence this year has been much like the violence in many of the last 25 years. About nine in 10 of the victims are men. Nearly all died by gunfire; four died of stabbings or cuts, and one was beaten to death. The dead are predominantly black; most died in the southeast quadrant of the city.
Why so many deaths?
Speculation on the causes of the slaughter comes easily. Feasible solutions are as elusive as the body count suggests.
Firearms are easy to obtain, legally or illegally. As Fort Wayne Police Chief Rusty York observes, felons who can't buy guns themselves often get girlfriends to buy guns for them. And guns are among the most desirable objects burglars can steal from homes or businesses.
York has frequently said the profusion of guns in the city helps explain the body count from homicides. Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry is a member of Mayors Against Illegal Guns. But additional gun-control measures show no sign of gathering momentum, either in the Statehouse or on Fort Wayne's City Council.
Bumper-sticker philosophers have known for decades: Guns don't kill people by themselves. But they make killing, impulsive or premeditated, easier than weapons such as fists or clubs or knives.
However, guns have been easy to obtain and plentiful for at least many decades. Fort Wayne City Councilman John Crawford, R-at large, remarked at a recent council meeting that people used to be able to buy guns from catalogs or at hardware stores, with no background checks, and the toll from homicide was nothing like the count today.
What makes the difference now?
York suspects that the glamorization of criminal behavior in movies, television shows and music may suggest or reinforce casual aggression.
City Councilman Glynn Hines, D-6th, says that what he hears from his district – which includes southeast Fort Wayne, where most of the homicides have occurred – is that there's a battle among drug dealers to control the drug trade.
“As one person has told me a relative has shared, in this new ruthless order, the people are directing this violence at others who are in the same line of business they are. I'm not talking about gangs per se, but drug dealers,” Hines said last month during a public forum sponsored by Northeast Indiana Public Radio on problems facing the black community and southeast Fort Wayne.
On that point, he and police agree. York, who becomes the city's public safety director Thursday, says that a majority of the victims and killers are people who buy and sell illegal drugs. Police were already familiar with most of this year's homicide victims when they were killed, because they had criminal records, York said. For civilians, the evidence of the deep criminal backgrounds of many homicide victims is as obvious as their pictures in the pages of newspapers. Most of those photos are mug shots taken when the victims have been arrested in the past.
In fact, York pointed out, robbers targeting drug dealers or buyers is becoming a more common crime. Sometimes those robberies end in homicides. In an example York cited from earlier this year, a fatal shooting that's likely to be chalked up as self-defense during a home invasion appears to have claimed the life of someone trying to rob a drug dealer in his home.
Poverty and a lagging economy
Jonathan Ray, president of the Fort Wayne Urban League, attributes much of the killing to the profusion of guns and, at least as important, the high rate of poverty and poor job prospects in southeast Fort Wayne. He says the bloodshed in the city is another example of what he says is a universal principle: Any time you combine poverty with an abundance of guns, you get violence.
Ray doesn't dismiss every factor cited by others as contributing to this violence. But he said they all dwindle in importance compared with poverty and poor economic prospects. He likes to compare living in dire poverty with being chased by a bear.
“If we were in a forest, and there was a bear chasing us, would we be thinking about Back to School Night or can I pay the rent at the end of next month? We'd be thinking about surviving right now,” Ray said.
Disintegration of families
Councilman Crawford believes the root of the problem lies in the rising numbers of single-parent “or zero-parent” families.
“You can avoid poverty in the United States if you do three things: complete high school, work full-time and wait until you're 21 and get married to have babies. If you do those three things, you have a 2 percent chance of being in poverty and a 72 percent chance of joining the middle class,” Crawford said during a City Council meeting devoted to discussing the large number of violent deaths in Fort Wayne.
Ray, at the same meeting, said again that improving job prospects is the best antidote for family breakdowns, because lack of money is the leading cause of couples breaking up.
In the past, high homicide rates have been spikes followed quickly by declines. York doesn't feel confident enough to predict that coming soon now.
“Conventional wisdom tells me that this is a bad year, that we'll tend to go back to the normal … that there are peaks and valleys. But I don't feel very good about the fact that there seems to be, when one of these players gets eliminated – either put in prison or killed as a result of a shooting – in the past you'd see (homicides) fall off the next year because the bad players are gone. But there seems to be right now a steady supply of these kids stepping up and getting involved in the same business.”