Many feel gang violence is out of control in St Louis, and children are among the innocents caught in the crossfire - Dan Rivers reports
Driving into St Louis from the airport north of the city is a sobering journey. For miles, the urban deprivation that has blighted so much of the "Mound City" is starkly visible. Once grand 19th century homes are left to decay, many now completely derelict.
A potent mix of gangs, guns and drugs has slowly taken its toll. But so have demographics that have seen a 60% population fall since the 1950s.
The city government says of the 129,000 total properties in St Louis, approximately 25,000 are considered vacant and abandoned.
The gun crime figures are even more startling.
So far this year there have been 70 murders in the wider St Louis metropolitan area. Many involve guns. It has helped to cement St Louis' unwelcome reputation as one of the most violent cities in America and the gun crime capital of the United States.
Last year, at least 120 children were shot in St Louis. 26 of those children died from their injuries.
But while the murder rate is appalling, there are hundreds more incidents where people are injured by bullets, often by accident. Literally caught in the crossfire as rival gangs spray each other with military grade weapons.
We visited one clinic that specialises in treating the aftermath of bullet wounds. It’s run by Dr LJ Punch who puts an emphasis not just on the physical recuperation, but also more holistic care, including family members of the person who has been shot.
'If there are more firearms than people in this country, can you imagine how many more bullets there are?'
Kyrous Fisher is typical of the patients at the Bullet Related Injury Clinic (BRIC). He was walking into a local shop when someone peppered the block with an AK47.
Kyrous was hit three times including one serious injury in the leg. I watch as his dressing is changed. The gaping exit wound in his calf is beginning to heal, but it is a visceral illustration of the impact of a single bullet on the human body.
"We know that in this last year one of [St Louis'] busiest trauma centres saw over 1,200 people had been shot", Dr Punch told me.
"So you do the math: that's three people a day plus, getting injured and everyday, at least one of them is going home to deal with that injury," he added.
Dr Punch is a powerful advocate of changing the entire debate around firearms and wants to tackle it like a disease, saying bullets are endemic in communities here.
Keen not to get bogged down in the debate about whether gun laws should be reformed, Dr Punch says it’s not helpful to be characterised as an opponent of guns in a community where some view them as a symbol of power or protection.
The fact is, here, like so many places in America, the streets are awash with weapons. But Dr Punch also puts a lot of emphasis on dealing with the psychological trauma caused by being shot.
"90% of people who are shot survive, so what happens next? Or what happens to the folks around them because if you felt the bullet, you (someone else) felt the impact," Dr Punch said.
"So we're not just caring for those individuals but we're caring for everyone around them who is also impacted," he added.
Too often Dr Punch says victims are stigmatised for being shot, when often they are simply “in the wrong place, at the wrong time”.
”Our hope is that a bullet injury doesn't define someone's life, that they can heal from it and do the things they want to do," he said.
Since the BRIC opened its doors in 2020, more and more people have sought its help.
"People who have been shot in the past - a year ago, 10 years ago, 20 years ago - are coming for us looking for healing that they didn't get [with their treatment from other hospitals] first time round," Dr Punch told ITV News.
"It doesn't just end when the tissue heals and the skin covers up again, it can have a lifelong effect," he added.
Funeral director William C Harris Jr told ITV News he is burying an 'astronomical' level of children and young people
The use of military weapons by teenagers on the streets is a worrying trend, which appears to be getting more common.
One police officer I spoke to off the record, told me she sees young people, sometimes young teenagers, brazenly carrying large calibre assault weapons in broad daylight. Some of her colleagues are veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and think the streets of St Louis are more dangerous.
Missouri has some of the most permissive gun laws in the country. You cannot only carry a concealed weapon if you are 19 years old, without a permit, but you don’t need to be subjected to background checks to buy one either.
There are no restrictions on large capacity ammunition magazines. It means the kind of semi-automatic weapons that are designed for the battlefield are perfectly legal to be carried on the streets of this city.
The toll of guns on St Louis’ population is felt by William C Harris Jr, who is a funeral director serving the north of the city.
He is blunt about what he sees each week.
"The number of children we are burying is astronomical. Something has got to be done… It is far, far, far out of control and we've got to do something about it.
"To bury your child, that's something that's devastating. We grew up to think we would be the ones that bury our parents, not our parents burying us. That takes a toll."
'It tore a major part of our lives apart...he was gunned down point blank': Dawn Usanga's seven-year-old son Xavier was shot dead in St Louis
For the Usanga family, the toll was unbearable. Their seven-year-old Xavier was shot dead as he played in the street. A stray bullet from a gunfight between rival gang members hit him in the throat. Despite the brave attempts of his sister to resuscitate him, he died soon afterwards.
"He was pretty much gunned down point blank, shot in the throat. The girls tried to resuscitate him [with CPR] but to no avail," Xavier's mother, Dawn, told me.
Gun fire was a daily occurrence in the Usanga family's life.
"You start to be desensitised to it. We try to stay out of the 'killing hours' and be in the house by 10pm... but it got just as bad in the daytime. You would go to the gas station and there would be a shooting at the gas station," Dawn said.
Xavier's mother criticised what she calls a lack of action from St Louis prosecutors that she says emboldens criminals. The journey to prosecuting the man who fired the shots that ended Xavier's life was a long and arduous one.
"I think that if they aren't being prosecuted, crime isn't going to change. It just doesn't make sense.
"They need to start doing something about it."
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