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A look at one of the thousands of gun deaths that didn't make national headlines

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

A story about gun violence in all its forms - and a note, that includes descriptions of suicide. It starts with a shooting a week ago - not the one you've heard about, the mass shooting in Highland Park, Ill. This one was a few hours away in Peoria. Quinton Scott was shot and killed around 3:30 a.m. on July 4. He was 19 years old.

MARCELLUS SOMMERVILLE: I don't really - don't know how to feel except for I feel lost.

SUMMERS: Marcellus Sommerville runs a community organization called Friendship House in Peoria. Quinton Scott was in a career development program there, working toward becoming a carpenter. Sommerville called him Q and said he was always around.

SOMMERVILLE: I mean, it's hard to walk the halls in the building, not yell out Q and come here, do this.

SUMMERS: The staff at Friendship House helped Scott work his way through a self-paced high school diploma program. He just graduated in April.

SOMMERVILLE: We gave him, like, this award. It's crazy. His butt didn't even take it home. But I have it here in my office. It says dream, believe, achieve. And then he was supposed to put his diploma in there.

SUMMERS: For every mass shooting, there are scores of deaths like Quinton Scott's - lives taken one by one, each just is devastating to the people around the victim, like Paula Volker in Casper, Wyo. Her July 4 started with a panic attack.

PAULA VOLKER: I was actually kind of surprised. I woke up with a nightmare.

SUMMERS: Last Monday marked nine years since her husband Dale shot and killed himself. He was an athlete and had just had a couple of back surgeries that left him in pain, unable to do the physical activities he loved. One day he didn't come home from work.

VOLKER: I think it was a snap decision that morning. I truly believe if there wouldn't have been a gun in the home that this wouldn't have happened.

SUMMERS: Meaningfully reducing gun deaths in the U.S. will mean preventing deaths like Dale Volker's in Casper and Quinton Scott's in Peoria. Cassandra Crifasi studies gun violence at Johns Hopkins University.

CASSANDRA CRIFASI: Far too often, policy conversations are driven by mass shootings. And that doesn't mean that we shouldn't make policies to address them, but if we focus only on those, we might miss other opportunities for intervention.

SUMMERS: There were 45,000 gun deaths in the U.S. in 2020, the most recent year with available data. When you start pulling that number apart, some troubling trends jump out. One in every 1,000 Black men and boys between the ages of 15 and 34 was shot and killed in 2020 according to a Johns Hopkins analysis. That is 21 times the rate of their white counterparts. Living under that threat weighs on a person. That's what Ernest Willingham told a U.S. Senate committee last month.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERNEST WILLINGHAM: Growing up in Chicago, it has become the norm to hear that someone, primarily a young person, has been shot and killed. Therefore, we cherish every possible accomplishment because we attended more funerals than weddings.

SUMMERS: Willingham is 19 years old, a junior at Northeastern University in Boston. And he told the senators he'd seen his brother, father, cousin and best friend become victims of gun violence. When we talked to Willingham, he told us that sense of danger shaped the way his grandmother raised him.

WILLINGHAM: I always wondered, why didn't my grandmother let me go to certain places or why wasn't I allowed to play outside with certain kids after a certain time? You know, I wasn't a bad kid. I always got good grades in school. And I wondered, was this a punishment growing up? Was I doing something wrong? But it turns out that she was just in fear that, you know, I would go, and that something would happen, as she had seen with, like, her other grandkids.

SUMMERS: That Senate hearing where Ernest Willingham testified was June 15. In just the few weeks since then, he's been touched by gun violence again - twice. He says his niece was shot in her own home. She survived, but he says the family has left their house out of fear of another attack. And his friend Eryk Brown was shot, too.

ERYK BROWN: When I was growing up, I was like, I hope I never get shot. That's something that I never want to experience. So I made sure to avoid every way possible to not get shot.

SUMMERS: Brown told us he made sure to have good grades and test scores. And like Willingham, he went out of state to the University of Wisconsin in part to escape gun violence in Chicago.

BROWN: I don't have to, like, lean towards the streets and be involved in nonsense that I don't see myself being a part of. I never thought I was going to be a victim of gun violence.

SUMMERS: Brown is back in the area this summer for an internship. He and a couple of high school friends stopped by a vegan restaurant for takeout in a neighborhood he didn't know well. They ordered, then went back to the car to wait for their food.

BROWN: Moments later, there was shots being fired towards my vehicle. And all I can remember during that time is just like saying in my head, like, when is this going to be over? When is this going to be over? Like, just praying that it's going to be over and that I don't get hit nowhere that it will just, like, permanently make me disabled or, like, even kill me.

SUMMERS: By the time the shooter drove off, Eryk Brown had been shot in the leg, and one of his friends in her hand. They rushed to a nearby hospital, where he said he felt discriminated against.

BROWN: I felt like I was getting profiled while being a victim of gun violence while I was in the hospital as well. I was just thinking, like, just because you are obviously a Caucasian, that don't mean this cannot happen to you. And a lot of people don't understand that, like, everyone that gets shot isn't a person that's condoning, like, negative behavior.

SUMMERS: Eryk, I hope you're OK. I hope that your friend, who you said was shot in your car - are you doing all right? Are you both OK?

BROWN: Yes, we both are doing much better.

SUMMERS: You know, oftentimes when there are shootings in this country and we have conversations about them publicly, it's about big, high-profile mass shootings, like what we saw in Highland Park, like what we saw in Uvalde, in Buffalo, N.Y. And there's a lot of public outrage, but that's not the kind of gun violence that the three of us are talking about that you've experienced or seen friends and family members experience. Why do you think that type of gun violence does not get the same level of attention?

BROWN: I feel like because it's affecting a different crowd. Because most of, like, the school shootings and mass shootings that are happening at parades and things of that nature are happening to people from different demographic than me or Ernest.

WILLINGHAM: I have a very, very similar perspective on it, you know? And when we think about the Highland Park shooting - and, you know, my heart definitely goes to those families, and I'm still praying for them. But, you know, my concern is you have mass shootings that take place in areas of Chicago like North Lawndale, like West Garfield Park. And I'm talking about four and five people that are being shot at one time. And you don't see one news channel. And you begin to wonder, well, what's the difference between those young people that are being shot and killed in Inglewood, in North Lawndale, as opposed to those ones that were shot in Highland Park?

BROWN: And also to add on to what Ernest said, look how quickly it took for them to find the shooter that did the shooting in Highland Park compared to any shooting that happened in Chicago. It just shows the amount of resources and time they put into different situations that happen to different types of people.

SUMMERS: Another group of people who are lost in the discussion over gun violence - those who die by suicide. More than half of gun deaths are suicides. Matthew Miller studies the relationship between guns and suicide mortality at Northeastern University. He says most people don't know that owning a gun increases your risk of death by suicide three- or fourfold. It's not that gun owners are inherently more suicidal.

MATTHEW MILLER: The gun itself changes what would very often be sort of nonlethal suicide attempts into lethal suicide attempts because with guns, you rarely get a second chance, whereas with many other commonly used methods, you do.

SUMMERS: Dorothy Paugh's life has been touched by suicide twice - first, when she was a young girl. Her father had lost his job.

DOROTHY PAUGH: He told my mother one day that she should know where the life insurance policies were kept and the will. And he went out, and he bought a handgun. Of course, she was alarmed, and she called our priest and his best friend. And they both came and spoke to him, but what they didn't do was take the handgun when they left. And the next day, he told my mom to take us to the swimming pool, which was a rare treat. And we were splashing and playing Marco Polo when they announced my mother's name over the loudspeaker and drove us to the hospital to tell us that our dad was dead.

SUMMERS: As I understand, many years later, in 2012, your son, who was an adult, died by suicide. And he also used a gun. And I know that since his death, you have talked about legislation to try to prevent gun suicides like the ones that your family has experienced. How did that happen? Tell us about that.

PAUGH: So after Peter died...

SUMMERS: Is Peter your son?

PAUGH: Yes - and a year or so passed where I was able to function, I just studied what worked to prevent suicides. And what I learned was that the single most effective thing an individual can do if someone is struggling is reach out to them and ask them if they're thinking of suicide. And then if they have access to a firearm, get it away, out of the house, however you have to do it. And what I decided to do was to ask my state delegate in Maryland to introduce an extreme risk protective order law, commonly called red flag laws.

SUMMERS: That bill became law in Maryland in 2018. She says she wants to see a federal red flag law. That's why, as hard as it is to keep telling the story of her loss, Dorothy Paugh keeps going.

PAUGH: I mean, sometimes I think I can't talk about it anymore, but after I get rested up, I have to talk again.

SUMMERS: Because without voices like hers and Ernest Willingham's and Eryk Brown's, we're only hearing part of the story about gun violence in America.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Or contact the crisis text line. Text hello to 741741.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAHALIA SONG, "LETTER TO UR EX") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.