Bystander shooting rate mushrooms Stray gunfire has come to shape the "conduct of daily life," experts say.

August 08, 1991|By Knight-Ridder

PHILADELPHIA -- The punch caught the drummer squarely, breaking his nose with a crack. Bouncers at Gilhooley's Tavern jumped into the fray. They shoved the three patrons who fought with the band that night onto the sidewalk.

Ron Hunter, a regular at the Philadelphia taproom, sat with his back to the brawl. "None of my business," thought the 39-year-old grocery clerk as he drained his glass. "Doesn't involve me."

An hour later, Hunter was fully involved -- a slug from a .380-caliber handgun lodged in the lower right portion of his skull. He had become another "mushroom," street slang for an innocent bystander who pops up in the line of fire. Hunter awoke -- temporarily paralyzed and in intensive care -- to learn that three men in a car had fired into the bar through its plate-glass window.

"I don't know who that bullet was meant for. It wasn't meant for me," said Hunter, who had surgery to remove the slug that struck him 10 months ago, and still suffers from the shooting's effects.

In Philadelphia, the number of bystanders hit or killed each year by gunfire has nearly quadrupled since 1983. In fact, the growth in the death rate from stray bullets has exceeded the growth in the homicide rate as a whole, mirroring a national trend in this rare but disproportionately disturbing category of aggravated assaults.

Lawrence Sherman, professor of criminology at the University of Maryland and president of the Washington-based Crime Control Institute, which has studied such shootings in five U.S. cities, says that routine gunfire or the threat of it in urban areas has come to "shape the conduct of daily life."

Criminologists, anti-violence activists and law-enforcement authorities attribute the increase in stray shots to four factors: an explosion in the availability of firearms; increased use of guns as the weapon of choice in homicides; brazen cross-fires over turf and market share in the illegal distribution of drugs, and a growing capacity for otherwise law-abiding citizens to inflict lethal damage when they settle disputes violently.

"The confrontation settled with a punch in the nose 20 years ago is settled with a gun today," said Camden County Prosecutor Edward F. Borden Jr.

Traveling at 850 feet per second when it leaves the muzzle, the slug from the typical handgun has the potential for enormous destruction in an urban environment, said Kenneth Swan, a Newark, N.J., physician and nationally recognized ballistics expert.

Most police departments do not record bystander incidents separately. Nor does the FBI keep statistics on the frequency of such crimes. Sherman has used newspaper accounts of stray and random bullet shootings to quantify and study the phenomenon. He defines a stray bullet as one that hits someone other than its intended target. A random bullet is aimed at no one in particular -- but hits someone just the same.

From 1986 to 1988, Sherman's research showed: Bystanders were killed by gunshots in Los Angeles 33 times; in New York, 32 times; in Washington and in Philadelphia, four times; and in Boston, twice. An additional 200 bystanders were wounded nationwide.

While it appears that fewer than 2 percent of the nation's annual victims of homicide (21,500 in 1989) are bystanders, such killings produce a large degree of outrage and fear.

"One reason the public gets so aggravated is the absolute innocence of the victims and the total absence of provocation," said Wolfgang.

In effect, the shooting of a bystander is a form of "terrorism," Sherman said, because anyone in the wrong place at the wrong time can be a victim.

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