The Normalization of Gun Violence in Poor Communities

A company that uses sensors to recognize the sound of gunshots could help solve the epidemic.

A boy holds a sign before a march against gun violence in Chicago on May 19, 2018.  (Joshua Lott / Reuters )

Ralph A. Clark remembers the first time he went for a ride-along with police. He was in Baltimore, and a teenager had been killed. He says what shocked him was not the sight of the body on the street, but the lack of reaction from people at the scene—“as if nothing had happened.”

“That is the cost of gun violence,” Clark, who is the president and CEO of ShotSpotter, a company whose technology uses sensors to identify the sound of a gun being fired, said Friday at the Spotlight Health Festival, which is cohosted by The Aspen Institute and The Atlantic.

Clark noted that although much of the focus on gun violence in the U.S. is on mass shootings, they account for about 1 percent of all shooting deaths. The overwhelming majority of gun crimes are committed with illegally obtained firearms. Not only that: very few individuals are responsible for most of those gun crimes, he said. But the vast majority of persistent, ongoing gun violence goes unreported by residents who live in communities that are often poor and under-served by police.

“Eighty to 90 percent of the time a gun is fired, there’s no call to 911,” Clark said,which means there’s no police response, which means that gun violence becomes normalized in these communities.”

Clark’s company’s technology is used in 100 U.S. cities, as well as in Cape Town, South Africa. It costs cities an annual subscription of between $65,000 and $85,000 per square mile per year. Smaller cities can get the service for about $200,000, but for larger ones like Chicago, which uses ShotSpotter to track gunfire across 100 square miles, the cost is about $5 million annually. The price is worth it, Clark said, because “the downstream consequences of what it means to be traumatized” are far higher.

“If you realized that there was a child that had to go to bed to the sound of gunfire, wake up to the sound of gunfire, maybe walk across yellow tape on the way to school, I think we would think about this issue very differently,” he said.

ShotSpotter’s technology provides police departments with a comprehensive picture of firearms use in a community—and it has been used by prosecutors to convict suspected shooters. Clark himself says, though, that the technology helps answer a basic question: Is a community deserving of a police response?

It’s a “signal to an at-risk community that they matter, because the thing that we all know is that when a gun is fired in a nice neighborhood there’s no question about response. So we’re trying to make sure there’s an aspect of public safety equity in these under-served communities.”