ATHENS, Ala. — Amid the stream of mass shootings that have become chillingly commonplace in America, the reality of the nation's staggering murder rate can often be seen more clearly in the deaths that never make national news.
Take this weekend in Chicago. On Monday, a rooftop shooter opened fire into crowds gathered for an Independence Day parade in a Chicago suburb, killing at least seven people and wounding some 30.
Less talked about, Chicago Police say 68 people were shot in the city between Friday at 6 p.m. and just before midnight on Monday. Eight of them died.
Most gun violence in America is related to seemingly ordinary disputes that spin out of control and someone goes for a gun. Black people are disproportionately impacted by gun violence in America and are much more likely to be the victims of gun crimes or homicides.
Often, the victim and the shooter know one another. They are co-workers and acquaintances, siblings and neighbors. They are killed in farming villages, small towns and crowded cities.
They are people like David Guess, a 51-year-old small-town father of four who had struggled with addiction and who police say was shot by an acquaintance and dumped in an Alabama forest near a place called Chicken Foot Mountain.
His killing drew little attention outside the rural stretch of northern Alabama where Guess grew up and later worked as a mechanic and truck driver. But his death shattered many lives.
“It’s been absolutely devastating” to the Guess family, said his brother, Daniel Guess. Their 72-year-old father, Larry, now rarely leaves his home and often doesn’t get out of bed.
Daniel didn’t just lose his brother in the shooting.
“I’ve lost my dad. too,” he said. “It is killing my dad.”
Compared to much of the developed world, America is a murderous country. The United Nations estimates the U.S. homicide rate is three times that of Canada, five of France, 26 of Japan. According to some studies, there are more guns in America today than there are people.
But if Americans often see the country’s streets as ever more dangerous scenes of public mass killings, the reality is more complicated.
While mass murders soak up the vast majority of the attention, more than half of America’s roughly 45,000 annual firearm deaths are from suicide. Mass shootings — defined as the deaths of four or more people, not including the shooter — have killed from 85 to 175 people each year over the past decade.
Plus, while America’s gun killings spiked wildly in 2020, recent statistics indicate they are coming down this year in many cities.
Further complicating things: The data on firearm killings is woefully incomplete, with just over 60% of the country’s law enforcement agencies reporting crime statistics to the FBI’s national database.
“Our lack of shooting data is devastating for understanding gun violence trends,” said Jeff Asher, a data analyst and co-founder of the firm AH Datalytics, which creates its own crime database to try to get around some of those shortcomings. “This is a government issue, but citizens are forced to develop workarounds” to create a clearer picture of what is happening.
While the FBI collects nationwide crime data, participation is voluntary on the federal level and thousands of law enforcement agencies send nothing or partial information. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does a careful count of homicides, but its data on each death is limited.
So when politicians debate whether AR-15-style rifles lead to more killings, or if extended magazines that carry more bullets lead to more deaths, no one is really sure. CDC statistics for 2020, for example, show that authorities know what kind of weapon was used in just 24% of firearm deaths. Both sides on the gun control debate, meanwhile, can frame what facts there are to suit their purposes.
Across America, people are afraid.
Nearly a third said they can’t go anywhere without worrying about being the victim of a mass shooting, according to a 2019 survey by the American Psychological Association. Nearly a quarter said they have changed how they live to avoid mass shootings, sometimes avoiding public events, malls and movie theaters.
But are they afraid of the wrong things?
“The coverage has given people the impression that things are different today, that we’ve never really experienced these (mass killings) before. But we have. It’s more common now, but it’s still extremely, extremely rare,” given the size of the U.S. population, said James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University who has been tracking mass killings since 2006 along with The Associated Press and USA Today.
Hyperventilating news coverage has contributed to the fear, he believes, with overwhelming, live coverage of mass shootings and reports that conflate mass shootings — where multiple people are injured — with mass killings. Just 5% of mass shootings end with four or more people dead, he said, “and only a quarter of those are in schools, churches and public places like that.”
Fox doesn’t downplay the horror of mass killings or the pain they inflict on victims, families and communities. But he worries that America’s reactions — active shooter drills, for instance, and bunker-like schools — produce outsized fears and misspent resources.
They also give people the wrong impression of how Americans are dying. Most homicides, he says, are one person killing another.
And one sure thing: You’ve never heard of most of those shooting victims.
They are people like Oneil Anderson, owner of the Love Cuts barbershop in Miami Gardens, Florida, who police say was killed in front of his shop in March, reportedly by a former customer. There’s Leslie Bailor, whose husband allegedly shot her repeatedly inside their central Pennsylvania home in April and then called police. She was dead when they arrived. There’s 18-year-old Jailyn Logan-Bledso, who was shot and killed two weeks ago at a gas station just outside Chicago by two men who stole her car and disappeared.
On June 26, Atlanta police say Brittany Macon, a 26-year-old employee at a Subway sandwich shop was shot and killed when a customer grew irate and opened fire. He also injured another employee. The customer, police said, was angry about having too much mayonnaise on his sandwich.
Homicides are often associated with big cities like Chicago, where police say the majority of killings have some tie to gang rivalries, which in recent years often fester on social media before spilling into the streets. But while Chicago's homicide rate is high, with nearly 800 killings in the city of 2.7 million last year, its rate per capita is lower than many smaller cities.
Gun deaths are far from just a big city phenomenon. Nearly 30% of all gun deaths in 2020 were in smaller cities and rural parts of the country, according to the CDC. Half were in large cities and their suburbs, with around 20 percent in medium-sized cities and counties.
Lawrence County, Alabama, where Guess was killed, had two other killings that same week in March. That’s more than are killed in an average year in the county of 33,000, Sheriff Max Sanders told reporters in March.
Sanders couldn’t explain the surge in homicides. In one, a husband allegedly shot his wife during an argument and then took his own life. In the other, a son is accused of beating his mother to death with an ashtray and other objects from around the house because she got rid of his dog and refused to take him to see his girlfriend.
David Guess’ death began with an argument over a car part.
Guess had struggled with addiction but had been clean for more than a month before his death, his brother Daniel said. He had adopted three of his four children and once contemplated becoming a preacher. In recent weeks, he lived in a camper parked next to his father’s trailer home.
He would, his brother said, “give you the shirt off his back.”
On March 5, court documents say David Guess drove down a dusty county road near the town of Hillsboro to the home of a man he knew. Late that night, another man, Charles Allan Keel, arrived. He insisted Guess owed him $1,500 for a catalytic converter, which have become valuable as scrap metal because of pricey metals inside them.
Keel, 43, along with his 17-year-old son and other men beat Guess, and someone hit him in the head with a pipe, police say. As Guess tried to escape, police say Keel shot him with a handgun. Five people were charged, but only Keel faces a murder charge.
Two days later, a delivery truck driver found David Guess' remains near the forest road, two miles from where he’d been killed. Rings of charred black rubber marked where police say Keel and several accomplices had piled tires on top of the body and set it on fire.
Tears well in Larry Guess’ eyes as he sits at his battered wooden dining table and recalls the phone call David made to him around midnight on March 5. David implored his father to bring him $1,500 right away.
“If you don’t, he’s going to kill me,” David said. Larry responded that he couldn’t get that much money that quickly.
The last words he ever heard from his son before the line went dead were of David Guess imploring someone nearby: “Don’t hit me with that pipe again.”