In the 1980s, a charismatic teenager named Anthony Beverly watched his Indianapolis neighborhood become overwhelmed by the crack-cocaine epidemic, and the violence that followed it. Though it was called an epidemic, it wasn’t treated that way. Government leaders nationwide responded to the emergency, which hit Black communities particularly hard, with rhetoric demonizing victims and a militarized “war on drugs” that sent millions of people of color to prison. At the same time, news outlets published dehumanizing and racist language, framing the addiction crisis as a criminal justice issue. To Beverly, though, it was clear that the crack-cocaine epidemic was a public health emergency — and decades before experts began arguing that gun violence should be viewed as a public health issue, he understood that the drug epidemic wasn’t isolated from the shooting crisis wracking his city.

Now, The Trace’s Fairriona Magee reports, emerging research is backing up his experience in Indianapolis. A landmark study, led by Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and released last year, provides evidence of a strong connection between gun violence and drug abuse: The findings show that, from 2018 to 2020, 80 percent of census tracts in Indianapolis with high rates of firearm injuries also had high rates of opioid overdoses. Part of the problem may be the availability of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that’s cheap to produce and highly lethal in small quantities. But another part of the problem, researchers said, may be structural disadvantages and lack of investment in the communities most affected by the current crisis.

While Black people make up less than 30 percent of the population of Indianapolis, researchers found that they were disproportionately represented in opioid overdose rates; in the same time frame examined in the study, Black people accounted for almost 80 percent of homicide and shooting victims. Meanwhile, one of the study’s authors told Magee, “we are seeing language and tactics that resemble our regular pattern of being ‘tough on drugs’” — such hostile law enforcement responses and worsening sentencing outcomes, as seen in the crack-cocaine epidemic — “without really addressing the true underlying problems.” 

Compare that with the opioid epidemic driven by OxyContin addiction, usually marked as taking place from 1999 to 2015. Research has shown that increases in the illicit opioid market were similarly associated with increased violence in that period. But lawmakers’ response to this intervening drug epidemic was markedly distinct from that of the ’80s and ‘90s and, as the IUPUI researcher noted, the one today. The rhetoric was more compassionate, the calls to action more swift, the focus on treatment over incarceration more concentrated. The most apparent difference: The victims were disproportionately white.

As Magee told me earlier this year, gun violence intersects with many of America’s other social, structural, and economic issues — which is why viewing it through a public health lens generates solutions centered on “prevention, protection, and more systemic change.” That’s what Beverly is working on today, through Stop the Violence Indianapolis, a violence prevention program focused on uplifting the city’s young people. After decades of working to interrupt the cycle of violence, addiction, overdose, and incarceration, Beverly is confident that the city’s community organizations and government agencies are equipped to find solutions. Magee’s latest story explores the question at the heart of Beverly’s work: What’s standing in the way of reducing gun violence in Indianapolis?

From Our Team

A roundup of stories from The Trace.

In Indianapolis, Drugs and Guns Converge, but Solutions Remain Disjointed

The city’s community activists say a fragmented response is trapping neighborhoods in a dangerous cycle.

How 30 Years of Federal Background Checks Changed Gun Buying, by the Numbers

To mark the anniversary of the 1993 Brady Bill, The Trace charted the evolving landscape of gun purchasing and gun violence.

I’ve Told Hundreds of Stories About Gun Violence. It’s Time to Tell My Own.

Reporter Alain Stephens’s father took his own life with a firearm. In the final episode of “The Gun Machine”, he meets with others who lost loved ones to guns.

How Will Philadelphia’s New Mayor Drive Down Shootings?

Cherelle Parker campaigned on stop-and-frisk policing. Her constituents have strong views on how she should implement it — if at all.

Could Gun Regulations Prevent Police Shootings?

Research has shown the connections between the proliferation of firearms, officer safety, and police use of fatal force. A new study looks at the flip side.

What to Know This Week

Firearm regulations in two states were struck down in a single day last week: The 4th Circuit ruled against Maryland’s decade-old handgun licensing regulations, and an Oregon court found that a voter-approved law banning high-capacity magazines and instituting new requirements to obtain gun permits violated the state constitution. [The New York Times

Three college students of Palestinian descent were shot and wounded in Burlington, Vermont, last weekend; a suspect was arrested and has pleaded not guilty. The Justice Department is investigating whether the shooting was a hate crime. [Associated Press/Vermont Public

A real-time gun violence dashboard has been unveiled in Louisville, Kentucky. It includes interactive reports that show victim demographics, homicides and nonfatal shooting incidents, and neighborhood maps. [Louisville Public Media]

Americans have become largely numb to acts of mass violence. But Kristin Kinkel, the sister of a school shooter, is still raw. [The New Yorker]

Alaska records the third-highest suicide rate in the nation, and the numbers are particularly high in the northwest Arctic. In Kotzebue, where the Police Department has no designated homicide detective or investigator, community members are taking a closer look at unsolved killings and suicides that they suspect weren’t actually suicides at all. [Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica

Last year, Governor Ron DeSantis activated the Florida State Guard, a World War II-era civilian military force primarily created to respond to natural disasters. Why does it look like a militia? [Tampa Bay Times]

For longtime patrons and former employees, Club Q was singularly special: It was the oldest operating gay bar in Colorado Springs, and a refuge in a city dominated by conservative voices. Survivors of the attack on the nightclub last year are still healing — but members of Colorado Springs’ queer community are stepping up to help. [Them]

Local governments reportedly pay billions of dollars to resolve lawsuits related to alleged police misconduct, including shootings. But research shows these settlements rarely affect police department budgets, and individual officers aren’t required to contribute, meaning there’s little financial incentive to prevent future misconduct. [USA TODAY

For many Americans with various illnesses, a federal law that prevents medical marijuana users from owning guns is coming to the fore as courts throughout the country decide if the restriction is a threat to their Second Amendment rights. [The New York Times]

In Memoriam

Lucille Ruibal Rivera, 70, was a “force of nature,” her son told a local NBC affiliate — an activist, a colleague said, who “would do whatever it took to improve people’s lives.” Ruibal Rivera was shot and killed in Denver earlier this month. A leader in the health care field, Ruibal Rivera co-founded a community clinic to provide care to underserved communities; over the past 30 years, it grew from serving a few hundred people in an apartment-size bungalow to preparing to serve up to 15,000 in a new 25,000 square-foot-facility. She worked to support artists as vice chair of the Chicano Humanities and Arts Council, an organization she’d been involved with for decades. Ruibal Rivera was generous and passionate, loved ones said, and a “mama bear” to the many people she cared about. She would “give and give and give,” her son said. “She gave love unconditionally, she gave time, support, and she wanted to lift [others] as she rose.”

We Recommend

The Budget Motel: “In 1993, Nick was shot in an Idaho motel room. One stranger came to his aid. Nick wants to find him.” [Heavyweight]

Pull Quote

“Sometimes all I need is to hear one of them say, ‘We can do it.’ Just the fact that I know I’m not in this alone.”

— Lakisha DeVaughn, whose son, Kentrell, was killed in a shooting, on navigating grief with a group of other D.C. mothers who lost children to gun violence, to The Washington Post