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D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser talks about a multipronged approach to curb gun violence


Many cities across the country have faced an increase in gun violence in recent years, especially since the start of the COVID pandemic. That's true in Washington, D.C., the nation's capital, where, on Friday, a shooter fired multiple rounds from a high-powered weapon at and around a school close to pickup time, wounding four people and sending panicked parents, students, nearby residents and pedestrians running for cover. The incident provoked a massive law enforcement response and national news coverage before the suspected gunman was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound hours later. Remarkably, no one other than the shooter was killed, but it was just one of several episodes of gun violence that same day in the District of Columbia and around the nation.

We called the mayor of Washington, D.C., Muriel Bowser, to hear her thoughts about all this, and she is with us now. Mayor Bowser, thank you so much for joining us.

MURIEL BOWSER: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So you met with parents of kids who gathered at a library while their kids were kept under lockdown at the school that was at the epicenter of Friday's shooting in Washington. You said on the news that night and you later said in a letter to constituents that, you know, you had to look into the eyes of parents who were terrified, thinking about what might have happened. Do you mind sharing - like, what were some of those conversations like?

BOWSER: Well, it was a striking and gut-wrenching moment as I walked with the police along Connecticut Avenue where parents had come, just sitting on street corners waiting to get news. And as I updated them, I could see the sheer terror and panic in their eyes, and it reminded me of all the other school shooting incidents that we've seen around the country. And it made me sad that since babies were shot and killed at Sandy Hook or since high school students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas even highlighted the shooting violence in our country to a very high level, we still haven't had meaningful change. Here's the truth. We had a 23-year-old in an apartment that had bought weapons of war legally in the state of Virginia and brought those guns to D.C. to terrorize our community.

MARTIN: Talk a little bit more about that. I mean, obviously, you know, Washington, D.C., is surrounded by other jurisdictions with different laws. I mean, the district has very strict gun laws, or at least it did until some recent Supreme Court decisions made it substantially easier for people to buy and obtain weapons in the city. But still, it's pretty hard in the city to get weapons, but it's, as you noted, near a jurisdiction where the laws are different. What's the relevance of that to people who may not understand what that means?

BOWSER: Well, I think there are - there's a lot of things, low-hanging fruit, that we have to do federally and among the states to address easy access to guns. And we know there's so much illegal trafficking of guns happening, too. And now we have the increased problem of ghost gun production. So we're happy to see the administration addressing ghost guns, but we have just a proliferation of guns.

MARTIN: So last year, municipalities like D.C. received federal funds from the American Rescue Plan. Cities and states used the funds in a variety of ways. Your administration put some of those resources into policing, creating the Building Blocks program. You know, as briefly as you can, could you just give us some ideas, or just could you just describe what this program is? And what's it supposed to do? How is this supposed to contribute to helping with this problem?

BOWSER: Its aim is to identify the people and places that are contributing to the most violence. What we know is that there are about 450 blocks in D.C. where over 80% of the violence happens. So really focusing environmentally on those places is important and - in terms of all of our law enforcement efforts. The people who are contributing to the most gun violence are also a relatively small number of people. We have identified about 200 people right now - and that number changes week to week - that we believe that, with intent services, if we can get them on a more productive path, that we will improve safety not just for them but their families and associates, thereby making the community safer.

MARTIN: Could you just talk a little bit more about that? What does that mean? I mean, does that mean law enforcement reaching out to this particular group of people? Does it mean social workers reaching out to this particular group of people? How does it work?

BOWSER: It means both. It means that law enforcement certainly is aware that they contribute to a lot of violence. It may mean that they're already under a parole or probation supervision so that aspect of law enforcement monitoring is happening. But it also means that they have intent services, so they'll have a violence interrupter, a caseworker. They will be offered mental health support. And we will also identify their family members and associates that need similar services.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, mayor, the shooting near that school on Friday provoked a massive law enforcement response, as we said earlier. But there were other shootings that day in the city that didn't get as much attention from law enforcement or, frankly, the media. There was one incident where three men were shot on one street. There was another where a man in a wheelchair was shot. No one was killed in those incidents, thankfully, either. There was a homicide in the city early Saturday morning. I'm sure it won't come as a shock to you that there are some feelings about what is seen as a different response to something happening in a predominantly white area versus something happening in a predominantly Black area. You can see this already, this response on Twitter and on, you know, neighborhood chat boards, for example. You know, even recognizing that the weapons in that shooting near the school - I mean, bullets were found nearly a mile away. Given the velocity, given the caliber of the weapons involved, that could have been a horrendous mass-casualty incident. Thankfully, it wasn't. But nevertheless, there are feelings about this. And it seems that, you know, some constituents are saying it seems like there's a different tolerance for violence depending on where it is. I mean, how do you respond to that?

BOWSER: Michel, I think that's a very cynical question or view, and it's sadly a reflection of how polarized our political times are. There was a sniper shooting in the direction of a school. If a sniper had been shooting at any other place in the District of Columbia in the direction of the school and was at large, it would have had the same response. So I'm not a law enforcement official, but there are different law enforcement responses for different activities. An at-large sniper using high-powered weapons is going to provoke that type of response.

MARTIN: Muriel Bowser is the mayor of Washington, D.C. Madam Mayor, thanks so much for speaking with us today.

BOWSER: Thank you. Thanks, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF KASPAHAUSER'S "IT'S ALL GOOD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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