TAMPA — There are plenty of theories as to why Tampa’s inner city has seen an increase in gun violence over the first few weeks of summer, but the reason matters little to the families forced to bury their loved ones this week over what Tampa Police Chief Mary O’Connor described as “turf wars” roiled into acts of violence through social media.
O’Connor called for a news conference Tuesday afternoon to address the issue, alongside a host of familiar faces: Tampa city council members, local activists from groups such as Rise Up Tampa, first responders, pastors from local churches, parents who lost children to gun violence, school officials, public defender Julianne Holt, Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren and state Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Tampa.
They were all brought together by a spate of violence seen in east Tampa on Monday afternoon: two gun-related homicides committed in broad daylight roughly 2 miles apart in about two hours. One man was killed and two others seriously injured in what police say were two unrelated shootings just outside Ybor City.
“These were not random incidents, and we’re here today to amplify the message that this cannot continue,” O’Connor said. “We as a community have to keep guns out of the hands of those who should not have them to begin with.”
Monday’s shootings happened within hours of each other, O’Connor said. The first came around 1:45 p.m. in the V.M. Ybor neighborhood, near the corner of E Columbus Drive and N Avenida Republica de Cuba (14th Street), where two people suffered serious gunshot wounds in the parking lot of a gas station.
Tuesday, O’Connor said the 21-year-old male shot in the melee died from his injuries at a nearby hospital. The other male, who is 15, is in stable condition.
Then, around 3:30 p.m., police were called to the corner of N 35th and E Chelsea streets — less than 2.5 miles away — where a man was shot and later died from his injuries.
Police worked quickly to piece together what happened, and are working with the state attorney’s office to determine what charges are applicable, O’Connor said.
Officers quickly located a 24-year-old man and a 15-year-old boy believed to be behind the gas station shooting. Officers also recovered the guns used in the shooting, which resulted from an altercation that began a few weeks ago, O’Connor said.
Detectives have yet to detain a suspect in the second killing, but are working on a very promising lead that developed through tips provided by the community, O’Connor said.
Of the many possible reasons for the rise in summer violence, the ease of access to guns is one that cannot be ignored — especially when those guns are then flaunted in videos posted to social media, she said.
“These young people are arguing and letting it all out on social media, and it’s so important that we, as a community, speak up when we see something that doesn’t look quite right,” O’Connor said.
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In June alone, over just seven days, Tampa police have made six arrests for felony possession of a firearm. And since the beginning of 2022, they have investigated reports of 78 guns stolen from unlocked vehicles, O’Connor said.
After Tuesday’s conference, Warren told the Tampa Bay Times his office is taking a heightened interest in prosecuting those cases, which carry a penalty of roughly five years in jail.
“There are so many guns in our society, and there are legislative fixes to this problem that have to be done on the state level,” Warren said. “But right here, right now, this is really a matter of focusing law enforcement and using our unprecedented resources to take guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them.”
Overall, Tampa and Hillsborough County have maintained a relatively low rate of violent crime in recent years compared to other communities of similar size, Warren said. That’s why his office and others have begun working more closely together to attack any spikes in gun-related crimes as soon as they appear.
Hart grew up in the city of Tampa, and accompanied O’Connor on Monday as she brought the horrible news of a loved one’s death to victims’ families.
“You see it on social media — my own grandchildren will come to me with videos of kids in possession of weapons of mass destruction, and this is going to keep happening until everyone who sees something comes forward and tells somebody,” Hart said.
“I am begging all of you, parents who get mad when we tell you to shake down your children’s rooms, we cannot continue to put blinders on. Not in this community. We’re better than this,” Hart said.