After Crown Center shooting, KC Mayor Quinton Lucas talks guns with VP Kamala Harris

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A day after a shooting at Crown Center – the bustling Kansas City shopping center often filled with children – injured six, Mayor Quinton Lucas sat on stage with Vice President Kamala Harris, asking questions about the White House’s efforts to combat gun violence.

Harris, who has been traveling the country speaking about firearms’ deadly toll, at one point mentioned meeting with a group of middle school students who had either witnessed gun violence or lost a family member to it. The trauma from violence, especially guns, she said, “is very real.”

Lucas interviewed the vice president Thursday as part of a previously scheduled U.S. Conference of Mayors event in Washington, asking two questions about guns and one about abortion rights. When he asked what mayors should do to cut the number of shootings, she responded by urging them to bring different groups together to address the problem.

“I would encourage you, to, as often as you can, do what you do, which is be a voice for all of those folks who must be seen and whose experiences must be known,” Harris said.

Lucas and other Kansas City officials are trying to make that approach work after the city set a new all-time homicide record in 2023, with 185 killings. Homicides have fallen in other major cities after spiking during the depths of the pandemic – but not in Kansas City.

City Hall, the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office and the Kansas City Police Department, along with nonprofit groups, launched new partnership programs in 2023. Police are implementing strategies, such as longer shifts for officers to address staffing shortages. Other efforts, such as a pilot program in the Santa Fe neighborhood, appear promising.

KCPD and prosecutors are also eyeing steps to deter violence, with a new approach potentially focusing on a high delivery of social services. A decade ago, the Kansas City No Violence Alliance, or KC NoVa, was credited with reducing homicides to its lowest level ever – though an analysis by the National Institute of Justice later found the program had no effect on violent crime in the program’s later years before it ended in 2019.

In the wake of the Crown Center shooting, Lucas on Thursday stressed the importance of following – and enforcing – rules.

“We need to make sure that both as a city and a society more broadly that we are pushing accountability in more situations,” Lucas told KCMO Talk Radio host Pete Mundo ahead of the Harris event.

“Because in many situations, small incidents balloon into something more significant and then we’re finding ourselves with this big of a fight where the alternative would be much better where people know we do expect rule following in our society.”

Police said investigators were told the Crown Center shooting Wednesday evening involved a verbal argument between two groups who appeared to youths, possibly in their late teens or early 20s. The altercation led to gunfire, and both an employee working security and a bystander also fired weapons.

Arguments were the most common known reason for shootings in Kansas City in 2023, followed closely by domestic violence situations, drug crimes and retaliation-related shootings, according to police statistics. While homicides broke records last year, the total number of nonfatal shootings was lower than in 2020 – the previous record-setting year for homicides.

Pat Clarke, the president of the Oak Park neighborhood association, said the violence stems from the sheer number of guns on the street, and how easy it is for children to get ahold of them.

“If your parents don’t care, and these are the things that they are teaching you instead of teaching you how to read, count and all the things that matter, then there’s no type of conversation when you talk about gun control,” Clarke said.

“There’s no conversation when you talk about who has a gun, when it’s your parents that’s actually giving you the gun, or your parents who don’t even keep up with you enough to know that you got one in her house.”

Lucas and other city leaders have pleaded for the Republican-controlled Missouri General Assembly to grant the city more power to regulate firearms. State law largely preempts city leaders from setting local rules, forcing Kansas City to abide by Missouri’s lax gun laws, which allow for concealed weapons without a permit.

With dim prospects of state-level action, Lucas has sought action from the federal government, where the Biden administration is supportive of regulating firearms. Still, Congress appears unable to pass laws that attempt to curb gun violence like requiring universal background checks for gun sales.

Lawmakers hailed a 2022 bill as the most significant piece of legislation to address gun violence in decades. But critics said the law, which strengthened background checks for people between 18 and 21 and provided money for more school mental health officers, did not go far enough.

The White House, which has pushed for a ban on assault weapons, is constrained in what steps it can take. In September, the White House formed an Office of Gun Violence Prevention, led by Harris.

Both Clarke and Damon Daniel, the president of the AdHoc Group Against Crime, said there has to be an increase in enforcement for people who are involved in shootings.

Daniel said jail overcrowding, along with a lower clearance rate for homicides and shootings in Kansas City compared to the surrounding counties, may be a factor in pushing the number of killings higher in Kansas City despite decreases in other cities.

“I would say there’s still not enough homicides that are being solved,” Daniel said. “There’s certainly not enough non-fatal shootings being solved, either. And that’s really on the people who will be willing to participate, and or identify those individuals who are responsible and bringing them to justice.”

But Daniel said he’s encouraged that the mayor’s office appears to be bringing together some of the social service agencies looking to solve the problem. He thinks more collaboration – and economic investments in high crime and violence areas – will help address the problem.

“Moving forward, particularly where I’ve seen some success, and some hope, is really the increase in collaboration that the city has really spearheaded,” Daniel said.

The Star’s Bill Lukitsch and Kendrick Calfee contributed reporting