A five-month old baby boy struck in the head by a bullet in a drive-by shooting in Chicago Thursday became the youngest victim yet of gun violence battering US cities already hobbled by the coronavirus pandemic.
The infant was in the arms of one of two young men in Chicago's Old Town neighborhood when attackers drove up and opened fire, wounding both of the men.
"He's in stable condition with a graze wound to his temple," Chicago deputy police superintendent Eric Carter said Thursday night outside Lurie Children's Hospital.
"It's quite heartbreaking," Carter said. "This is not normal for anyone, whether it's Chicago or any other city."
- Thousands shot -
Shootings have become breathtakingly normal this summer across the United States. Hundreds have been killed including dozens of children, and thousands wounded.
In late June a one-year-old died and his mother was wounded in a Chicago drive-by shooting.
In New York on July 12 one-year-old Davell Gardner Jr was killed in his stroller by gunmen who raked a Sunday evening Brooklyn cookout with gunfire, wounding two men.
The shootings have been stoked by the social and economic hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic, pullbacks by police under attack for abuse of African Americans, the hot summer's pull on people to the streets, and by social media-fuelled gang vendettas.
According to the Chicago Tribune, 1,901 people had been shot this year in the city as of July 13, up 550 from a year ago. Of those, 373 died, up by 97.
In New York 795 people had been shot as of July 13, with more than 200 deaths, also sharply above 2019.
The epidemic is overwhelming many other cities -- Philadelphia, Indianapolis, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Baltimore among the worst -- and the pace only accelerated this month.
The July 4 holiday weekend saw scores of shootings around the country, attackers often firing into crowds at street parties and barbecues.
- Grudges, taunts over social media -
The perpetrators and victims are predominantly young African American men, often members of small cliques or mini-gangs with personal grudges and drug turf rivalries.
Chicago has hundreds of such groups, sometimes just five or ten members each, making it near impossible to monitor threats and foster truces, police say.
Taunts and provocations on Snapchat drive many of the shootings. The cliques make their own hip hop videos with threats against others that spiral into lethal attacks, Chicago Pastor Corey Brooks said.
"It's not even drug associated, it's personal vendettas," said Brooks, who works with Chicago communities to ease tensions.
"Social media has a lot to do with it. ... They are so young, they haven't even learned conflict resolution," he said.
Christopher Herrmann, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and a former police department analyst added that the uptick can be attributed to "retaliatory violence. Social media amplifies this."
- Summer of COVID -
Historically summers bring more shootings, as people move out of apartments and onto the streets for late-night gatherings and parties to beat the heat.
COVID-19 has increased that. After being confined to homes for months, easing restrictions in May and June brought a burst of city dwellers outside.
"There's like a backlog of violence," feuds that were repressed by confinement, said Herrmann. "Now we're seeing this kind of multiplication effect."
The coronavirus also raised financial pressures on gangs and their families, with jobs lost and incomes dried up.
"We don't have a stable economy in our communities. And when you add to it COVID, there is even more frustration," said Brooks.
- Police back off -
Another factor, says Brooklyn Pastor Gil Monrose, is the retreat of police in the wake of protests over law enforcement brutality.
Monrose, whose so-called God Squad of clergy leads efforts to halt street violence in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn, said police are more reticent to investigate suspicious behavior, and less present at nights.
"The police and the community seem to be at war with one another," Monrose said.
Police are also being hit by budget cuts forced by the coronavirus's hit on the economy, noted Hermann.
He criticized the New York mayor's disbandment of the police's special anti-crime unit, which in the past did much work to take guns off the streets.
"The guns are the problem," he said.
"We have a ridiculous amount of guns in the US."