The Innocent Bystander As Victim The List Of People Hit By Stray Bullets Is Growing

Posted: July 28, 1991

The punch caught the drummer squarely, breaking his nose with a crack. Bouncers at Gilhooley's Tavern jumped into the fray. They shoved the three patrons who fought with the band that night onto the sidewalk of Bustleton Avenue.

Ron Hunter, a regular at the Northeast Philadelphia taproom, sat with his back to the brawl.

"None of my business," thought the 39-year-old grocery clerk as he drained his glass. "Doesn't involve me."

An hour later, Hunter was fully involved - a slug from a .380-caliber handgun lodged in the lower right portion of his skull. He had become another ''mushroom," street slang for an innocent bystander who pops up in the line of fire.

Hunter awoke - temporarily paralyzed and in intensive care - to learn that three men in a car had fired into the bar through its plate-glass window.

"I don't know who that bullet was meant for. It wasn't meant for me," said Hunter, who had surgery to remove the slug that struck him 10 months ago, and still suffers from the shooting's effects.

In Philadelphia, the number of bystanders hit or killed each year by gunfire has nearly quadrupled since 1983. In fact, the growth in the death rate from stray bullets has exceeded the growth in the homicide rate as a whole, say experts concerned about crime.

From three reported incidents in 1983, to 12 reported last year, bystander shootings in the Philadelphia area have grown steadily - mirroring a national trend in this rare but disproportionately disturbing category of aggravated assaults.

Lawrence Sherman, professor of criminology at the University of Maryland and president of the Washington-based Crime Control Institute, which has studied such shootings in five U.S. cities, says that routine gunfire or the threat of it in urban areas has come to "shape the conduct of daily life."

It is the reason a Chicago woman sometimes sleeps in her bathtub; a Long Beach, Calif., school erected a 10-foot-high, 900-foot-long, 8-inch-thick concrete wall to intercept gunfire from a neighboring housing project; a Los Angeles school trains children to drop to the ground at the sound of a ''gangster bell" signaling gunfire, and postal authorities in Atlanta temporarily suspended mail delivery to a housing project after a letter carrier was caught in a crossfire, according to published accounts.

It is the reason New Yorkers awoke last month to the headline: "Stray Bullets in 3 Shootings Kill 2 Women and Wound 5," and in Washington three weeks ago the eulogy for a mother began: "A Good Soul Killed by Stray Bullet is Laid to Rest."

It is the reason that banks - fearing liability when shots are exchanged - rarely station armed guards in lobbies anymore.

And in Philadelphia, where innocent passersby have been struck twice by gunfire in aborted armored-car heists since June, it is a reason to cross the street when a truck marked Brooks or Brinks is idling at the curb.

Criminologists, anti-violence activists and law-enforcement authorities attribute the increase in stray shots to four factors: an explosion in the availability of firearms; increased use of guns as the weapon of choice in homicides; brazen crossfires over turf and market share in the illegal distribution of drugs, and a growing capacity for otherwise law-abiding citizens to inflict lethal damage when they settle disputes violently.

"The confrontation settled with a punch in the nose 20 years ago is settled with a gun today," said Camden County Prosecutor Edward F. Borden Jr., an outspoken proponent of a New Jersey law banning the semiautomatic weapons that make it possible to spray gunfire.

"It's a lot more dangerous now than when I was coming up. People don't fight fair anymore," said Anita Burton, 29, a Philadelphia native, whose 7- year-old son Daniel was hit by a stray shot in March. The boy was riding his bike just one block from his house at the Passyunk Homes public housing project in South Philadelphia when an argument between a man and woman erupted in gunfire. The shot hit Daniel in the stomach.

"I couldn't cry until they came out of surgery and told me he was going to be OK," said Burton, who found herself recalling the stray-bullet shootings that left 6-year-old Ralph Brooks paralyzed, and one week later took the life of 5-year-old Marcus Yates in 1988.

"I expected one of my children to be hit by a car, or to get in a fight and be hurt. Living in the city, those are the things you expect. It never occurred to me that one of my children would be shot," said Catherine

McNichols, whose 8-year-old daughter Erin was shot outside her Kensington home last July. The child was standing near her father - and a pistol-waving neighbor he was arguing with - when the neighbor fired several shots. One tore through Erin's neck. "Please don't let me die," she said to her mother as a police car rushed them to Episcopal Hospital. While Erin has no lasting medical problems, tears still come when she talks about what happened.

James Mills, executive director of the Philadelphia Anti-Drug/Anti-Violence Network, which organized the recent campaign to get people to turn in their guns, said there were 160,000 registered firearms in Philadelphia and probably twice that number of unregistered guns. That works out to about one gun for every three city residents.

Whereas guns were used in 30 percent of homicides committed in Philadelphia in the early 1950s, rivaling knives as the weapon of choice, guns are used today 66 percent of the time, said Marvin Wolfgang, professor of criminology and law at the University of Pennsylvania.

"The more times the trigger is pulled, the greater the possibility of hitting the wrong target. It's that simple," Wolfgang said.

Traveling at 850 feet per second when it leaves the muzzle, the slug from the typical handgun has the potential for enormous destruction in an urban environment, said Kenneth Swan, a Newark physician and nationally recognized ballistics expert. A bullet fired up Broad Street from City Hall, for example, would reach the crowded plaza of the State Office Building at Spring Garden Street just 3.7 seconds later. Unless, of course, it hits something sooner.

Most police departments, including Philadelphia's, do not record bystander incidents separately. Nor does the FBI keep statistics on the frequency of such crimes. Criminologist Sherman has used newspaper accounts of stray and random bullet shootings to quantify and study the phenomenon.

He defines a stray bullet as one that hits someone other than its intended target, like the shot that cut down presidential press secretary James Brady in 1981. A random bullet is aimed at no one in particular - but hits someone just the same. The shot fired into Gilhooley's might be an example.

In 1990 such shootings occurred about once a month in Philadelphia and its suburbs, although the vast majority occurred inside the city limits, Sherman's research showed.

He based his findings on a preliminary analysis of shootings reported in The Inquirer between 1983 and 1990. The data, which were analyzed by Crime Control Institute researcher Sharon Tafoya, were furnished by the newspaper.

Two years ago, Sherman published a major study in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology, using similar newspaper data from Boston, New York, Los Angeles and Washington. Titled, "Stray Bullets and 'Mushrooms,' " it concluded that bystander shootings had increased dramatically in each of those cities since 1985.

From 1986 to 1988, Sherman's research showed: Bystanders were killed by gunshots in Los Angeles 33 times; in New York, 32 times; in Washington four times; and in Boston, twice. Over the same period, four bystanders were killed in the Philadelphia area. An additional 200 bystanders were wounded nationwide.

While it appears that fewer than 2 percent of the nation's annual victims of homicide (21,500 in 1989) are bystanders, such killings produce a large degree of outrage and fear.

When a child at play is killed or wounded, or when a teacher is hit by stray gunfire, as 36-year-old Susan Zwerling was outside the Birney Elementary School in the city's Logan section in 1989, public ire erupts.

"One reason the public gets so aggravated is the absolute innocence of the victims and the total absence of provocation," said criminologist Wolfgang.

In effect, the shooting of a bystander is a form of "terrorism," Sherman said, because anyone in the wrong place at the wrong time can be a victim.

Although bystander shootings have occurred most often in high-crime neighborhoods, they can happen almost anywhere - as demonstrated by the woundings of SEPTA cashier Robert Sauer, 56, near 30th Street Station in June, and Steven Johnson, 27, near 43d and Market Streets two weeks ago. Both men were innocent victims of armored-car heists gone awry.

In the most recent incident, Johnson, of West Philadelphia, and his fiancee, Jean Wootson, of Media, were en route to Center City to make arrangements for their wedding next May. They were driving past the scene of the attempted robbery outside the Thriftway supermarket when a security guard fired at a suspect. Of his four shots, one hit the suspect in the stomach.

But another - a stray shot - pierced the windshield of Johnson's car, ricocheted off the dashboard and tore into his chest, lodging near his left armpit. Johnson attempted to drive himself to the hospital, but he bled so heavily that his fiancee had to take the wheel. He was admitted to Mercy Catholic Medical Center, Misericordia Division, and rushed to intensive care.

On Tuesday he was released, still carrying in his chest the slug that wounded him.

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