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A memorial outside the home where 7-year-old Zaniyah Burns was killed on October 9, 2018 in Flint, Michigan. [Mark Felix for The Trace]

Urban Violence

In Flint, Gunfire is Killing Kids at a Devastating Rate

Tapped out by its battles over lead-tainted water, the Michigan city is grappling with another public health crisis: It’s losing kids to guns at nearly twice the rate of Chicago and Detroit.

This piece was reported in partnership with Flint Beat.

Zaniyah Burns loved to read, sing, dance, and do word-search puzzles. Her family called the 7-year-old “Toot Toot.”

At 8 pm on October 9, Zaniyah’s home came under fire. Police believe the shots were intended for her 16-year-old uncle. Instead, bullets flew in through a window and struck the little girl, who was lying in bed. Zaniyah was hit twice in the head and died that night.

Over 100 members of the Flint community, already struggling with violence and the long crisis over lead-tainted drinking water, honored Zaniyah’s memory with a candlelight vigil on October 12.

They heard from Jeffrey Hawkins, a local pastor with the Prince of Peace Baptist Church, who lost his 14-year-old son in a 2007 shooting and now works with a partnership between faith leaders and Michigan State Police that helps victims’ families negotiate logistics while they are grieving.

I know what I’ve been through and that it rips at the core of families,” Hawkins told The Trace. “The shooting and what they feel at that moment is just the beginning of what they will experience.”

Zaniyah is the fourth and youngest Flint kid to have been killed by a gun this year, and records show that the city has a particularly high rate of child firearm death. The Trace examined data from the FBI’s National Incident-Based Reporting System and calculated that Flint, with a population of roughly 100,000, lost an average of 3.5 children per 100,000 residents to gun violence each year from 2010-2016.

That’s double the child firearm homicide rate in Chicago, and nearly twice Detroit’s, according to data obtained through public records requests.

African-American children in Flint are especially vulnerable. The city is 54 percent black, but all four Flint minors who have died from gunshots there this year were black. The Trace’s analysis of the FBI data show that between 2010 and 2016 there were 25 Flint minors killed by firearms. Twenty-three of them were black. Also, in the same period, more than 80 percent of the juvenile victims of all major gun crimes in Flint were black.

The Flint Police Department declined to comment on children lost to city gun violence, but expressed skepticism about findings based on FBI data. However, The Trace verified all but two of the 25 gun deaths through local media reports. (We also found news reports about three additional victims who were not present in the FBI data. We did not include those deaths in our analysis).

Ten-year-old Jacques Allen liked fishing and loved Michael Jackson. Sometimes he would dress up as the entertainer and do impromptu performances at his school. Jacques was a high-energy fifth grader who was reading at an eighth-grade level, according to his grandmother and neighbors.

After dinner on New Year’s Day, Jacques sat down on the couch to watch TV with his grandmother, Nelda Allen. Jacques heard what he thought were fireworks, and went to the window to take a look. By the time his grandmother realized what was happening, it was too late.

“That second or third bullet went right through his head, and they just kept shooting,” Allen said. “I was trying to reach him to take him down on the floor, but I just couldn’t reach him. I was trying, but I couldn’t.”

Jacques Allen

Jacques was pronounced dead from his injuries the next day, but Allen said she knew immediately that her grandson had passed.

“Right in front of my eyes, I can’t get this out of my mind. It’s like a tape recorder is steadily playing in my mind,” Allen told Flint Beat in January.

At least two other Flint minors died from gunfire this year. Jareion Jackson, 17, was shot on December 19 of last year, but he died from his injuries on New Year’s Day. Fulton Bibbs, also 17, was shot and killed in May while sitting in a car.

Also, in March, a gunfight that broke out near a gas station on the border of Flint and Burton. Drayquan Jones, a 16-year-old, was shot in the chest; his death was investigated by Burton Police.

Hubert Roberts Jr. has been working with parents and children in the community for over 17 years through programs such as Flint Men’s Community Action Resource and Involved Dad. Jacques was the third child Roberts had mentored who has been killed by a firearm in the past three years.

“Most people in Flint are in survival mode,” Roberts said, noting that residents are still coping with the water crisis that began in 2014. Roberts believes that gun violence is another indication that his community has been abandoned.

“We see it in the classroom and in the homes,” Roberts said. “Our children are living with anxiety and fragility daily. They walk around, and they do not feel safe.”

Destiny Jones, a sophomore at Powers Catholic High School, lived down the street from Jacques when he was murdered. She said his killing, and others in her neighborhood, have matured her beyond her years and made her feel unsafe in her home.

“Gun violence, it’s taken so many lives, kids from all ages, not just grownups,” she said. “I get scared not just that I might get shot walking home or being on the bus, I’m scared about how it’s going to affect my loved ones.”

Multiple studies have found a correlation between community violence and psychological symptoms similar to those of children living in war zones. A 2009 study of 114 research papers found that community violence has the strongest connection to post-traumatic stress disorder. The study concluded that that children who hear about and witness violent crime “may constantly fear for their own safety as well as the safety of the people around them, and they may remain chronically emotionally and physiologically hyper-aroused as a result.”

Roberts has seen these effects firsthand.

“A lot the children we deal with are fidgety. If a pop goes off, they duck,” Roberts said. He says the children will start crying if someone tries to take them to a place they associate with violence: “There is a lot of psychological damage that our children are experiencing because of gun violence.”