Gun violence claimed 62 lives in Sacramento County this year

In the era of the mass shooter, Sacramento’s everyday homicides struggle for relevance

Illustration by Brian Breneman

Read this week's Editorial on Sacramento, gun violence, access to firearms and, specifically, assault rifles here.

On the same day the nation shifted its attention to Southern California for America’s latest mass-shooting horror, gun violence quietly claimed its 62nd life this year in Sacramento County.

The coroner’s office identified the 22-year-old male victim as Octavio Rodriguez. Emergency responders pronounced his death not long after they found him sprawled out on a south Sacramento street from a single gunshot wound on the night of December 2. Investigators are still searching for a suspect and a motive, a sheriff’s department spokesman said.

But it seems like “why?” is a question that stopped getting asked some time ago.

As the country wrestles with difficult questions about firearm availability, and the definitions of the terms “terrorism” and “mass shooting,” a not-so-secret truth has emerged about gun violence:

Sacramento, like many communities, hasn’t dodged tragedy. It’s just taking longer to count the bodies. And, for the most part, they belong to young men of color.

“The majority of homicides are gun-related,” noted Deputy Tony Turnbull, a sheriff’s spokesman and former homicide detective.

Indeed, firearms were used in approximately 72 percent of the homicides that authorities investigated this year so far in the cities of Sacramento, Citrus Heights, Elk Grove, Rancho Cordova, Isleton and the unincorporated parts of Sacramento County, according to an analysis of data gathered by SN&R. (No homicides were reported in the cities of Folsom and Galt.)

In the city of Sacramento, the victims are disproportionately young, male and black. Of the 26 people who died from gun violence inside the city, including one killed during a fatal encounter with police and one who may have accidentally shot himself, all but one were male.

In the cases where race could be determined, by comparing police reports and coroner records, 48 percent of the victims were black, 28 percent were Hispanic, 16 percent were white and 8 percent were Asian.

The ages of the dead ranged between 16 and 56, though most were under the age of 30. Nineteen percent were in their teens, 31 percent were in their 20s, 23 percent were in their 30s and 27 percent were 40 or older.

In the troubling era of the mass shooter, these everyday tragedies draw even less notice than they used to, say gun control advocates.

“It seems like the incidents have to be more and more outrageous to get any public attention,” said Nick Wilcox, a legislative advocate for the local chapter of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “It is a disgusting state of affairs.”

That’s one reason the local Brady chapter assembled on the northwest side of the state Capitol this past Friday evening: to connect gun violence that results in mass casualties to the unsolved killing of 17-year-old Jaulon “JJ” Clavo on November 13. The Grant Union High School senior was fatally shot while driving his teammates to a playoff football game in Del Paso Heights.

“The common thread is the availability of firearms,” Wilcox said. “The root causes may differ, but the results are the same.”

On Tuesday, the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors planned to contribute $5,000 to a reward fund for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Clavo’s killer, boosting the total amount to $40,000.

It’s the rare instance where the public hasn’t moved on to the next provincial tragedy. But other victims threaten to get lost in the shuffle.

On November 27, gunfire struck four men in the parking lot of south Sacramento’s Vientiane Cafe, following a physical altercation inside. Paul Xiong, 26, and Xang Thao, 32, died in the early-morning shooting; another man suffered what the sheriff’s department described as life-threatening wounds. The Hmong New Year shooting is believed to be gang-related.

Two days earlier, the bullet-riddled body of 26-year-old Matthew Caquelin was discovered in a field not far from the Sacramento International Airport. Authorities aren’t sure whether he was killed there or brought there.

On November 7, a shooting near the neighborhood of Arden-Arcade claimed the life of 42-year-old Eugene Carlisle and 30-year-old Nicholas Tyrone Gibson.

Rodriguez was the county’s 18th victim of gun violence since October 1.

For law enforcement, the pace of gun homicides has been steady and unremarkable. For the public, the fatalities can blur together, indistinguishable from the next and soon forgotten.

“The investigator almost becomes the hope and the conduit for the family,” Turnbull said. “A murder is a murder. It doesn’t matter what their lifestyle was or wasn’t. No one has the right to take another life, unless it’s justified.”

Turnbull called homicides “the most complex investigations” that law enforcement conducts. “No homicide is ever solved the same way and no homicide can be investigated the same way,” he said. Along with combing though evidence and digging up witnesses, Turnbull says investigators have to anticipate possible legal defenses by ruling out other suspects and by figuring out the motive.

“That’s a huge part of the investigation, trying to figure out that story,” Turnbull said. “But we’ll never know why it ever happens.”

Soon after the ambush at a San Bernardino office gathering, America engaged in the five stages of political grief: horror, outrage, prayers, calls for change and back to business as usual. This year, armed assailants have also delivered carnage to an abortion clinic, on a college campus and inside of a church.

In a joint statement, Americans for Responsible Solutions co-founders Gabrielle Giffords and husband Mark Kelly, personally acquainted with the toll of gun violence, acknowledged the now-common cycle. “We wish we could use words like ’unimaginable’ and ’unthinkable’ to describe the horror that unfolded today in San Bernardino. But it is not. Not in our country,” they said. “We want to repeat something we said just last week after the tragedy in Colorado Springs: As a country and a people, we must reckon with the fact that these types of gun tragedies simply don’t happen as often in other countries.

“America is an extraordinary place. But these tragedies make us stand out in the worst of ways.”

According to a scholarly paper submitted to the Congressional Research Service in July, the rate of mass public shootings—in which at least four people are murdered by firearms in a single event—has inched upward over the last 40 years, from 1.1 incidents per year during the 1970s to 4.5 incidents per year between 2010 and 2013, the last year that the researchers considered.

The paper’s authors called for better data collection, so that “policymakers would arguably have additional vantage points from which to assess the legislative proposals that are inevitably made in the wake of these tragedies.”

The National Rifle Association has successfully blocked such data collection.

A congressional summit on gun violence is scheduled to take place on December 14 at the Capitol.

Barring a national sea change, there are regional correctives.

California employs some of the stricter gun laws in the country, and operates a unique database in which registered gun owners are flagged if they develop a criminal status that prohibits them from owning firearms. Statewide authorities currently have a list of nearly 14,000 names they still need to vet.

Locally, a Sacramento City Council subcommittee was scheduled Tuesday to hear a request from its police department to increase the penalty for discharging a firearm from an infraction to a misdemeanor.

Since June, the department has been apprehending more people for the offense due to its “Shot Spotter” sensor system, which scattered approximately 100 audio sensors around 3 square miles of the Del Paso Heights neighborhood.

Police say they’ve been able to apprehend individuals “who simply discharge firearms for no lawful reason,” but that the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office is reluctant to prosecute them due to the low level of the offense and the evidence needed to prove more serious negligence.

Police think they may be able to prevent gun violence before it happens.

With nearly a month left in 2015, the 38 homicides investigated by city police represent a seven-year high, dating back to 2008, when there were 49 homicides. Nearly 66 percent of the homicides were gun-related.

“Guns give weak people a sense of power,” Wilcox said. “We’ve had firsthand experience.”

Wilcox and his wife lost their 19-year-old daughter to gun violence in 2001. Laura Wilcox was volunteering as a receptionist at a Nevada County mental health clinic when a man who had refused care gunned her down. Her death led to the passage of “Laura’s Law” the following year, allowing counties to force treatment on certain people with severe mental illnesses.

But that kind of political will doesn’t exist when it comes to gun laws. More than a decade later, the Brady campaign and other gun-control advocates are still calling for universal assault weapon bans and background checks. A day after the San Bernardino attacks, the U.S. Senate voted against expanding those checks.

If everyday gun violence and mass public shootings aren’t enough to spur a national legislative response, Wilcox wonders what will. “I don’t know the answer to that,” he said.