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NYC subway shooting fits a pattern of mass shootings, crime researcher says

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

We wanted to get some additional perspective on the subway shooting, so we called Thomas Abt. He's a senior fellow on the Council on Criminal Justice. Welcome to the program.

THOMAS ABT: Thank you. Good to be with you.

FADEL: So it feels as if the shooting has put a city already dealing with surging gun violence even further on edge. New York City has experienced a double-digit spike in gun violence over the past two years. Does this feel like part of that pattern?

ABT: Frankly, it doesn't.

FADEL: OK.

ABT: I don't really see this as a New York City issue. I really see this as a national issue. If Frank James does turn out to be the shooter - and that is a big if - it really fits a pattern that's really more about mass shootings and a national issue that can happen anywhere and not about a New York-specific crime issue. For one thing, the New York City issue - and in many cities around the country - is a community violence issue, violence between and among young men, often without a lot of options or much hope. Mass shootings involve individuals who are solitary, angry. They often give off warning signs. And they often have grievance narratives. And the guns they use are often legally purchased.

FADEL: Right. And unfortunately, mass shootings have become relatively common in the United States. How, then, should New York City be handling this? What should police and city leaders be doing, be saying?

ABT: Well, first and foremost, of course, they need to find Frank James or whoever the actual shooter is and bring them to justice. They need to understand exactly what happened and why it happened. But if it does play out as we're seeing right now and it is a sort of mass shooting narrative, that suggests a different set of policies than policies dedicated to addressing subway crime or street crime in general. So that would suggest that we need better threat assessment, more red-flag laws and, in fact, reasonable restrictions on gun purchasing and operation - much of the national debate that we've already been having about these issues.

FADEL: A different set of policies, so maybe not a return to the, quote-unquote, "tough on crime" days in the city, which disproportionately targeted people of color, Black residents. And that's something that the mayor, New York City's mayor, is under pressure to do when it comes to handling crime and gun violence.

ABT: So far, I think Mayor Adams has really pursued a relatively balanced approach. He is bringing back some law enforcement strategies, targeted crime patrols. But he's also maintaining many of the community crime-prevention strategies of the de Blasio administration, focusing on mental health and also summer jobs for at-risk youth. So I think that Mayor Adams is off to a strong, balanced start. And I would suggest maintaining that balance and maintaining that moving forward.

FADEL: Now, an increase to crime and gun violence is not unique to New York City. It's something that we're seeing nationally. There's already an increased police presence around the subway system and not just in New York, but in other cities, like Washington, D.C. How should people view an increased police presence?

ABT: Well, I think in the short term, you do need to be concerned about a contagion effect if this is, in fact, a mass shooting - copycats and things like that. And so you may need an increased presence in the subways as a deterrent in the near future. That doesn't mean that that police presence needs to be maintained indefinitely. And so I think there is reason to deal with that in the short term but not necessarily in the long term. And people, frankly, need to be reassured that they'll be safe while in transit.

FADEL: The mayor has been asking the federal government for help to curb gun violence in New York City. How much of this gun violence is due to a wider issue of the U.S.'s gun culture?

ABT: Well, you're certainly correct that the crime rise in New York is not unique to New York. In fact, the overwhelming majority of cities over the past two years have seen significant increases in gun violence, particularly homicides. That's due to several factors. It's due to the pandemic. It's also due to social unrest following the brutal murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. And it's also due to increased guns. There was a massive sale and legal purchases of guns during the pandemic. And unfortunately, we have ATF data that suggests that not only are there more guns out there, but a larger percentage of those guns have fallen into the wrong hands.

FADEL: In the few seconds we have left - you've spoken about needing a little bit of law enforcement and a little bit of prevention to reduce urban violence. What does that look like for you?

ABT: For me, that means sort of rejecting the narrative that we hear so often - that it's either about safety or it's about justice, that it's either about fighting crime or it's about promoting social justice. We obviously need both.

FADEL: Thank you. Thomas Abt is a senior fellow for the Council on Criminal Justice. Thank you for your time.

ABT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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