Not a firing range
A recent pattern of gunfire in areas frequented by students is distressing
Gun violence in Charlottesville is not a new phenomenon.
If shootings occur far enough from the University’s bubble, students may never hear about them. A few examples are in order. The afternoon of Jan. 22, some 10 to 20 gunshots disrupted a West Street neighborhood, injuring no one but wreaking structural damage on two homes. A week later a man was arrested for firing a gun inside a business in the 400 block of Premier Circle. And last August a shooting on Stony Point Road — an apparent murder-suicide — left four dead. Students barely raised their eyebrows; even The Cavalier Daily left the reporting to local news outlets. We shrug off such incidents, if we learn of them, as Charlottesville’s problems, and we return to tiptoeing the line between town and gown.
It is harder to dismiss gun incidents when we can hear and see the bullets whiz by. And recently shootings have occurred closer to areas frequented by students. Around 1:45 a.m. two Fridays ago, loud pops cut into the Corner’s late-night buzz and bustle. Students celebrating the start of spring break found their merriment interrupted when a bullet shattered the window of Mincer’s. Saturday, more shots were fired, this time near the Downtown Mall. Two injured men were taken to the University’s medical center after a shooting on Second Street.
Both the Corner and the Downtown Mall are areas where town and gown cross. At these sites, students and Charlottesville residents exchange words, money and music. Though Charlottesville’s town-gown relations are far from perfect — among other problems, economic disparities or perceptions of such disparities between city residents and the student body make the University’s relationship with its host town somewhat strained — the University community benefits greatly from Charlottesville’s vibrant cultural, educational and ecological offerings, and the town derives much of its economic base, as well as much of its identity, from the school. University and Charlottesville leaders should work to ensure an atmosphere of fear does not undercut these mutually beneficial town-gown interactions.
First, the University could be more aggressive in promoting safety internally as well as promoting safety in city areas frequented by students. University officials did not send a University-wide email following the Corner shooting. The school is required to notify students of certain on-Grounds or near-Grounds crimes under the Clery Act., though the March 8 firearm discharge does not fall under the act’s purview. Still, University leaders should not feel limited to only legally mandated disclosures. A shooting on the Corner is frightening enough, both in terms of severity and proximity to students, that a message from the University Police or student-affairs leadership would have been reassuring and beneficial. Though there is only so much the University can do to ensure student safety off Grounds, such as on the Downtown Mall, the school wields great influence in the city and could support local businesses or other organizations that might lobby for a heightened police presence in commercial areas.
Though homelessness and panhandling are currently the most high-profile and hotly debated issues Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall is grappling with, gun violence is another problem it must confront. Aside from hurting the mall’s atmosphere and social cohesion, a trend of violent incidents could damage the town’s economic standing. For one, such a trend might threaten businesses’ liquor licenses if confrontations ending in gunfire prove to be alcohol-fueled. And if local businesses are put in a position of having to hire armed bouncers, few entrepreneurs will see Charlottesville as a desirable place to set up shop. Downtown and Corner businesses should consider banding together — as Jaclynn Dunkle, owner of Fellini’s on the Downtown Mall, suggested in an interview Sunday with NBC29 — and approaching City Council to make their safety concerns heard. The University should support local businesses in such an effort as a short-term fix while also engaging in research and other efforts to tackle longer-term causes of gun violence.