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Gun Violence In Austin, Texas, Reflects Broader National Pattern


We are continuing our focus on some of the major public health crises this country is facing right now. While much of the world has been focused on COVID, understandably, we want to talk about something that's long been a challenge for many Americans but seems to have grown with the coronavirus pandemic. We're talking about gun violence. Many places - cities, suburbs, small towns - have seen a surge in homicides this past year, with guns playing a central role. Later, we're going to hear from somebody who's been working to interrupt gun violence in his Chicago neighborhood.

But we wanted to start with a local leader who has to manage all of the issues we're talking about. He leads a city with rising gun violence in a state with extremely liberal gun laws and a COVID crisis. Steve Adler is the mayor of Austin, Texas. Last month, after a mass shooting in a popular nightlife area left 13 wounded and one dead, Adler joined four other mayors in calling for the Biden administration to make gun violence prevention a top national priority. And Mayor Adler is with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for talking with us.

STEVE ADLER: Michel, thanks for the invitation to join.

MARTIN: So let me just be clear that Austin is by no means a leader in homicides nationwide, but the city reflects a broader pattern around the country. You've had more than 40 homicides this year alone. That's almost at last year's total of 48, which itself was the most in decades. But the number of gun violence offenses is - what? - like, almost double what it was just years ago. So what do you think is going on?

ADLER: Well, I wish we knew exactly what was going on so we could better stop it. One thing's very clear, though, is that it's just not happening to us. It's happening all around the country. As I talk to mayors, it almost feels like everybody is dealing with the same thing. So there's something that's going on that cuts across local policy decisions because it's happening everywhere. I wish I knew better. In Austin, it appears as if a lot of the violence that we're dealing with now is related to guns. So we're focused on that right now with our law enforcement folks.

MARTIN: You've called gun violence a public health crisis. In 2019, Austin created a task force on gun violence. This year, the city opened the Office of Violence Prevention. You know, at the same time, Governor Greg Abbott last month signed a bill allowing Texans to carry handguns without a license. And Texas already had very liberal gun laws. So there are already a lot of guns out there. And with lax state laws, what do you feel, as a mayor, that you can actually do, if you don't mind my asking it that way?

ADLER: Well, you know, I do have, you know, fundamental disagreement with the statewide policy of increasing access to guns. I mean, right now, you know, with all the recent laws that were passed, you don't need a license. You don't need training. You don't need anything. You just become a certain age, and then you're allowed to carry a weapon and a concealed weapon. And I just - you know, the evidence is not there that more guns make us safer. You know, here, locally, we're working with our police department and in greater collaboration with federal law enforcement agencies and then the prosecutors in the area, finding the illegal weapons, finding the trafficking patterns for those. So we're doing what we can. We were pleased to be able - to be asked by the administration to join a 14- or 15-city cohort to really focus on community interventions. That program's just starting, but I have high hopes that there's things we could learn from colleague cities.

MARTIN: With all that's going on - I mean, COVID and gun violence, and you're also telling us that, you know, there's a looming eviction crisis, potentially, particularly in certain cities where the markets have been, you know, hot - as near as you can tell - and I realize it's an amorphous question - what would you say is the mood? I mean, people felt like they were kind of creeping back to normalcy. Then this new COVID variant emerges. And the fact is that gun violence is very traumatic. When it - whether it affects you personally or not, it's very traumatic. And so these are substantive kind of quality-of-life problems. Like, how do you - what would you describe is the mood right now?

ADLER: I think that people are frustrated and anxious. People who have taken the vaccine at this point see the fact that this is incredibly effective, the vaccines, and incredibly safe. I think there's a growing frustration with people that won't take the vaccine. If people that are choosing not to take the vaccine are now going to increase the numbers in our ICUs and crowd out space for people who have heart attacks or are involved in car accidents or are raising infectivity in the community generally to the place that it puts our children at greater danger, I think there's some measure of growing frustration.

MARTIN: And the fact is, as I said, these are substantive quality-of-life problems. But this is also a political problem. And the fact is that conservative media and conservative activists and conservative politicians have a very different approach to a number of these issues. They're making a lot of focus on these urban violence - you know, the surge in violence and calling it a consequence of, you know, social justice movements or failed policies - at the same time, have a very different approach about public health around the virus than many Democrats do and progressives do. I'm just wondering, for you, like, how are you thinking about this? How are you navigating that?

ADLER: If cities across the country were all adopting the same policies in response to Black Lives Matter, if cities all across the country were defunding their police, then it might be that you could explain an increase in crime that is happening everywhere, except that the increased crime is happening both in cities that have doubled down on increased spending and those that have held back increased spending or are reinvesting money in other public safety measures.

The only thing that is happening everywhere that is impacting increased crime is this virus. And the fact that the remedy that's necessary to actually tamp down this virus, the vaccine, has become a political issue is horrible. I think it's great that some of the more conservative leadership has just begun to reach out to their constituencies and urge them to take the shot because it's safe and effective. And I welcome that. It is too little, and it's later than I would have liked to see it happen. And frankly, I think that the sooner everybody starts taking the vaccination, that we can move past this virus. I think that might be one of the most effective things we could be doing to help with crime because, again, I think that there is some tie between that and what we're seeing.

MARTIN: That is the mayor of Austin, Texas, Steve Adler. Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for talking with us today.

ADLER: Michel, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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