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It starts with courage: Making shootings in our towns old news

By J. Hogan

I was recently pursuing a regional online news site and noticed a bold headline about a homicide in McCandless. A 38 year-old man was shot and killed in the lush community bordering the county’s North Park.

Scrolling down, a reader would find a much smaller headline announcing another homicide, victim not yet identified, that took place the same evening. This one occurred in Wilkinsburg.

If you know anything about news, the old axiom “Old news is no news” always rings true. The papers don’t run stories about President Biden losing his exit route after a presser, nor did they run stories all the time about President Trump sarcastically tweeting years into his term. It was old news.

Homicides in Wilkinsburg, Homewood, McKees Rocks, and other areas still mostly get some coverage, but it’s small coverage, with small headlines below the fold or deeper into the paper because folks being killed in such areas is old news.

A murder in the well-heeled community of McCandless? That’s above the fold, in big bold font, because it’s new news.

Sadly, we know where most of our shootings occur from coast-to-coast. Most of them are in impoverished urban areas where single parent households are the rule, not the exception, and it’s usually in areas where the single parent household is a generational reality.

Of course, most people who grow up in such circumstances don’t become killers, and I recently heard a local radio host use that fact to deflect a caller’s call for a more honest conversation about violence in the aftermath of a 15 year-old murdered as he climbed the steps into Pittsburgh Oliver Citywide Academy, a special education center.

Neither do most kids in an area where a so-called cancer cluster is found end up with cancer, but no one suggests we don’t talk about or address the well-above-the-norm cancer rate and its causes on that basis.

There’s a measurable, ugly problem and when the data shows it, everyone should want it looked further into, the source causation(s) found, and the situation taken head-on to try to rectify the problem and save lives.

These homicides are usually committed with illegally obtained handguns, and often involve drugs - although shootings over ever more trivial matters are common, too.

The demographics of this sometimes involve folks from across the demographic spectrum, but most of the shooters turn out to be in the 15- to 28-year-old range, male, and represent the racial makeup of the communities in which they occur.

Urban poverty combined with the cascading distance from societal norms that make up a new sort of normal for areas where fourth and fifth generation single parent household are now the norm, makes for a toxic mix well known to law enforcement, and even impacts some more rural areas in Appalachia, Mississippi and the desert Southwest.

This all means that it’s normal for kids in such areas to grow up in an environment where they personally know several people killed by violence during their developmental years. Of course, most of America can’t imagine their children knowing multiple people murdered through their childhood.

None of this is a secret. FBI statistics bear it out plainly, the people in the communities can attest to it and the police and emergency services respond to it all the time.

Although it’s not secret, it’s also not dealt with. Why? Because dealing with it in a manner that might actually change things for the better would take more courage than most of our leaders have. Doing so brings allegations of racism, judgmentalism, and moralizing.

That’s a shame. We know what to address, even if we’re not sure what would work, because we don’t dare come straight at the problem.

Just as we know the vast majority of school rampage shooters are white males in rural and suburban settings, we know who is killing one another in urban areas. Both are hard to solve, but in both cases we’re not doing much to try either.

With a clear correlation between urban poverty and generational single parent households to violence, the people suffering the violence would very well possibly benefit from a strong campaign to encourage marriage and sell its benefits plainly as kids become teens and head for adulthood.

A similar campaign in the 1980s went straight at the problem of drunk driving, spearheaded by Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, and our leaders responded by changing social expectations, inventing the designated driver, and increasing penalties for DUI.

If we have the courage to look at the raw data and use it to address cause and effect, we’ll at least have a shot at reversing the trend. Truth be told, it shouldn’t need all that much courage. Communities are ravaged by this mess and being willing to wade into sticky topics of importance should be a prerequisite for elected office.

If we do come straight at the matter and weather the invective, perhaps we’ll truly make shootings in our towns old news instead of the norm. If we continue to fear meeting it head on it’s only going to get worse for our communities.

Rev. James Hogan is a native of Stowe Township and serves as pastor of Faithbridge Community Church in McKees Rocks.



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