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A candlelight vigil at the WDBJ station in Roanoke, Va. The event was convened as a memorial to all of the victims of the city's increase in fatal shootings this year.

City Limits

‘We’re at War Here in Roanoke, With Each Other.’

Accounts from the front lines of urban gun violence. This week: Roanoke, Virginia, site of last week's on-air murders — and an overlooked spike in fatal shootings.

Even before the horrific on-camera murders of two WDBJ7 news reporters in Roanoke, Virginia, the local metropolitan area was grappling with an uptick in violence. Roanoke is the hub of a four-county region nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The city, which had three confirmed homicides all of last year, had more than doubled that benchmark by May, and has witnessed seven fatal shootings so far this year. Roanoke Police Chief Chris Perkins has insisted that just a few people with criminal histories were giving the city a bad name, but Northwest Roanoke has historically been the epicenter of crime in the region.

The community was still reeling from the recent shooting deaths of a 2-year-old girl in Roanoke and a 3-year-old boy in nearby Franklin County when Vester Flanagan gunned down the two journalists and critically wounded the executive director of a local chamber of commerce last Wednesday. The next evening, members of a new local gun violence prevention group gather grieving residents in front of the news station for a vigil to honor all of greater Roanoke’s recent shooting victims.

As part of a weekly series on the urban gun violence epidemic, the Trace shares three stories from Roanoke residents whose lives have been reshaped by shootings. 

The Rapper Who Lost His First Friend to Gunfire in Middle School  

Robert Wormley, 33, is the brother of Joyce Ann Payne, who was fatally shot in her Roanoke apartment in 2011. He raps about his experiences with gun violence under the name Fhat Rob.

My sister was shot a few times and stabbed 35 times in the stomach. She was three months pregnant. It was a home invasion. They blew her boyfriend’s head off at the door, literally. And she was in the back of the apartment and had just got back from work. It was painful and confusing for me. I lost all control mentally. I was on medication. I got counseling. I had a mentor with me everywhere I went.

Me, though? I’d been shot before that. It was in Roanoke, in 2001. I was coming out of my house to get a CD out of the car, and by the time I hit the bottom of the stairs, gun shots started going off. I ran back up the stairs to get back into the house, and my legs gave out. I was shot in the calf. The shooting was intentional, but I have no idea why it happened. I don’t know who did it. But no one else was out there, so it had to be intentional.

When I was in middle school, one of my closest friends got killed. This was in the mid-‘90s. He and a couple friends were playing with a gun, just clicking it, and they didn’t know there was any bullets in the chamber, and then a bullet shot out and hit my friend in the heart.

I rap about my past and present experiences. I rap about the pain that I feel, things that I’m angry about, things that I’m happy about. I’m working on a song about gun violence. It’s gonna be instructional, about how we gotta do better. It’s like, people that ain’t botherin’ nobody get killed. I feel like nobody has a solution for it. I’m trying to find solutions.

When I heard about the shootings on Wednesday, I was shocked and angry. Every time I see one of these killings, it puts me on guard even more, makes me more nervous and paranoid. I don’t want my kids to go outside unless I’m out there with them. You gotta be careful. Anything can happen to you. I mean, I carry a gun. I feel like I have to watch everything. I gotta make sure I get home to my kids and wife. We at war here in Roanoke, with each other.

The Advocate Who Came Home to Grieve

Catherine Koebel, 37, is a member of the gun violence prevention group Stop The Violence Star City. She attended Thursday night’s vigil in Roanoke.

I can’t believe that, eight years after Virginia Tech, I’m back in this place. On the other hand, I know it’s such a different place, because at the vigil last night, the attorney general of Virginia said we need to change things right away. But I’m frustrated, because right after Virginia Tech, obvious mental health policy changes were proposed. And everything in there got implemented, except the one thing that had to do with gun regulation: universal background checks.

I live in Roanoke now, but my husband and I grew up in Blacksburg. When my husband was finishing medical school in St. Louis, Virginia Tech happened. I was so upset. Somebody told me I needed to get it together. How can you talk to me about getting it together? I didn’t want to live somewhere where people did not understand what happened. So we moved back to Roanoke, and afterwards, almost every person I talked to here had some connection to the school. When there’s nothing you can say but that choking feeling in your throat, you just need to look at other people who you know will understand.

There was a huge response in Virginia after Sandy Hook. There were so many important legislative targets here, activists were just popping up all over the place. But then there’s a few guys in a room who say, “No gun laws.” This tiny little minority has veto power, and the rest of us keep having to absorb the blow.

We traffic so many guns there, just flood them across the border. Baltimore’s gun violence is so high, and I feel like Virginia is partially responsible. I feel like 20,000 people in rural Virginia can essentially destroy the effectiveness of gun laws in Maryland. And in New York, because Virginia is one of the main sources of New York’s illegal guns.

Sometimes it feels like everybody wants us to shut up. To just not care anymore. But I’m not capable of it. I don’t honestly know why I do this. Because it is awful and painful. I am caught in the same cycle with gun-rights logic over and over again: If they get the gun legally, there’s nothing you can do. If you get the gun illegally, there’s nothing you can do. How is this the only problem in the world where there’s nothing you can do?

The Mother Who Buried Her Granddaughter on Her Second Birthday

Mekeysha Lipford, 38, lost her only grandchild when 23-month-old Aryah Lipford was shot by her mother’s boyfriend on July 14.

Last night’s vigil was touchy. It’s still rough. As bad as I want to break down, God keeps telling me “no.” “No.” Aryah tells me every day, “Don’t you break down, Grandma. I need you to stay here for me.”

Aryah was shot by her mother’s boyfriend two days before her second birthday. He told police that he shot Rachael, her mother, to punish her for taking his car, and he wanted to make her suffer even more by shooting Aryah, too. Aryah didn’t get hit by a stray bullet or nothing like that. He meant to shoot her. He always had a gun on him. I have no idea how he got one. He’d threatened Rachael with a gun before.

The last time I seen Aryah, her mother said she was taking her to the beach. I remember Aryah looked back at me said, “Love you. Love you. Love you.” As she said it, she blew me kisses. Then later I get the call. I was at my job — I’m a janitor at a bank — and me and my coworkers were cleaning off chairs. Whatever we was talking about had nothing to do with kids. Out of the blue, I looked around and said, “I have the most amazing granddaughter in the world.” And just as I said that, my phone rung. It was my son Mikal, and he said, “Aryah and Rachael just got shot.” They told us Aryah was already gone when they got to the scene. Rachael said that when Aryah stopped crying, that’s how she knew she was gone. We buried Aryah on her second birthday.

I grew up in Northwest and Southeast Roanoke. Back then was a lot better because you didn’t hear about all these shootings and killings, and the people doing them were older people. Now it’s our children who are doing the killing. You don’t want to see it anywhere, but when it hits your home, it makes it even worse.

I have six children, including Mikal, so my grandbaby has two uncles and three aunts, and each one of them had a bond with her. Her uncle was teaching her how to play basketball. My daughters would teach her to sing and dance. All my kids, they’re still hurt. We’ll sit around and watch videos of her and talk about things she used to do. We had so many plans for her.

Update: The original version of this article misstated the number of homicides Roanoke experienced in 2014 and so far this year. Those totals have been corrected. 

[Photo: AP Photo/Don Petersen]