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What has caused Kalamazoo's surge in gun violence, and when will it end?

Side-by-side photos of two guns. The one on the left is a pink handgun lying on a wood or faux-wood surface. There is a bullet in the bottom right corner. The photo on the right shows a longer black gun resting in a foam-padded case.
KDPS photo
Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety
Two guns seized December 19, 2023 by the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety, at a residence in or near the 800 block of North Park Street in Kalamazoo. In a Facebook post, KDPS said it seized "several" guns from the address, including a stolen handgun.

Kalamazoo County Sheriff Richard Fuller and Urban Alliance's James Harris discuss how law enforcement and the community are approaching Kalamazoo's gun violence crisis.

According to the FBI, the national murder rate declined in 2023 after a sharp rise during the pandemic. But Kalamazoo County had 27 homicides last year, a substantial increase from pre-pandemic levels.

WMUK reporter Jessi Phillips spoke to Kalamazoo County Sheriff Richard Fuller and Urban Alliance’s James Harris about what may have fueled the surge in gun violence in the area, and how the police and the community are moving forward.

"There's a there's been a tremendous increase in the number of firearms that people have access to," Fuller said. "That that tends to be one of the leading causes, or not causes, but contributing factors, to an increase in gun violence."

Urban Alliance Outreach Manager James Harris mentioned the pandemic and the way it removed us from normal life. But he also said the cause is difficult to determine.

"Some are saying that it's the music. Others are saying that the condition of certain areas, you know, the environments that have been created, maybe by systems, and that that pressure that happens there, and the depression that happens, and the oppression that may happen," he said. "So it's several factors."

And just as there’s not a single cause, Sheriff Fuller said there is no easy solution.

"I hope people understand that if there was some magic out here that people would listen to, and then do, law enforcement would be talking about that magic right now," he said. "Or somebody would have created the perfect bill to solve all of this. There is no perfect bill."

Harris is hopeful about Urban Alliance's anti-gun violence programs, including its annual Life Camp. He said the program aims to teach kids the difference between acceptable and unacceptable gun use.

"There is the education piece at a young age. Our theme is hands are meant to heal, not kill, so we're trying to teach kids that there's a purpose for your hands. Right?" he said. "Even if it's giving a high five or giving a hug."

Sheriff Fuller said most shootings are not committed with legally purchased guns. He stressed the need for proper storage to prevent guns from being stolen from owners’ cars and homes.

"We find that more than people will imagine," said Fuller. "Unless you're a gun owner yourself, you're not thinking, 'Where do people store these things?' And just like in homes, we've known for years that if somebody breaks into your home, and they know you have firearms, they know right where to go get it."

I asked Harris if he’s critical of the way police have handled the increase in gun violence.

"We don't have time to criticize one another," he said. "Because lives are on the line. You know, so the most important thing is, how do we how do we stop people from dying prematurely? I don't have time to criticize anybody about that."

And both Fuller and Harris said they are hopeful things are moving in the right direction.

"I know that with the hard work that's happening right now that things are going to change, and that things are going to be better," said Fuller. "Because again, this is an anomaly. This is a bump in time, and time being a long cure of many ills, is on our side."

"We just we gotta keep working," said Harris. "We have to keep working. Because if the numbers were low—lower—some years back, then we can get there. We can get back there."