‘It’s every single day’: Metro Atlanta communities grapple with rash of shootings

Law enforcement agencies across metro Atlanta have seen a rash of homicides in recent weeks.

Credit: Gwinnett County Police Department

Credit: Gwinnett County Police Department

Law enforcement agencies across metro Atlanta have seen a rash of homicides in recent weeks.

A man shot to death on a MARTA train. A woman gunned down in the street outside a southwest Atlanta park. Two brothers killed while sleeping inside their Gwinnett County home — all within a three-day period.

Coming off a historically deadly year, metro Atlanta’s law enforcement agencies are still looking for ways to curb gun violence following a spate of shootings across the area. And as the country and state grapple with gun legislation, some communities are on pace to surpass last year’s homicide numbers.

But it isn’t just the core metro counties experiencing a spike in violence. The uptick appears to be making its way beyond the suburbs as authorities in Paulding, Cherokee and Hall counties have all launched homicide investigations in recent days.

Sgt. Ashley Henson, a longtime spokesman for the Paulding County Sheriff’s Office who’s been with the department nearly two decades, said it seems like someone has been killed in metro Atlanta each time he turns on the news.

“It’s every single day. It’s awful,” said Henson, who has two sons. “Personally, I don’t know that people value life anymore. I don’t think these young people understand the finality of what happens when you pull the trigger.”

The recent rash of killings is alarming for many, particularly in Atlanta where murders are up 60% from this time last year. Atlanta police have investigated at least 32 homicides since the start of the year — up from 20 through the first three months of 2020, according to the latest available data.

The surge in Atlanta crime was a major focus of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ State of the City speech Wednesday morning as she announced a plan to hire 250 new police officers. Bottoms said 90 police recruits are currently in the pipeline, and that she is working with the City Council to enact a retention bonus for officers.

It also appears that investigators around the metro area aren’t getting much down time between shootings. The Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office has already investigated six homicides this year after recording just one in all of 2020.

In Canton, a 30-year-old was arrested at an Ingles last week after authorities said he fatally shot two people — his pregnant girlfriend and her uncle. Kristopher Martin Johnson was arrested on murder and feticide charges March 23 after authorities said he called 911 from the grocery store parking lot and confessed.

The Cherokee County double shooting came just days after a gunman opened fire inside an Acworth-area spa, leaving four people dead before continuing his rampage at two similar businesses in Atlanta, authorities said. By the time the suspect was taken into custody in South Georgia, eight people had died and a ninth was injured.

As the nation mourned the victims of the metro Atlanta spa shootings, departments across the area launched even more investigations as the shootings continued.

In Gwinnett, police are looking into two double murders that occurred days apart. On Friday afternoon, a mother and her teenage son were gunned down inside a townhome near Flowery Branch, authorities said. The woman’s boyfriend, 24-year-old William Jerome Adams, was recently arrested in Texas while trying to escape across the Mexican border. Then on Sunday, family members discovered two brothers shot to death in their Lawrenceville-area home. That homicide investigation continues and police have not named any suspects in the case.

Gwinnett police have investigated 12 homicides so far in 2021, up slightly from the 11 recorded through the first three months of last year, agency spokesman Cpl. Collin Flynn said. Like many communities across the nation, Gwinnett saw an influx of homicides in 2020, ending the year with 48.

“2020 was a big spike for us. It was 30 the year before that,” Flynn said. “It wasn’t just us. A lot of jurisdictions from across the country had huge spikes in homicides last year.”

Atlanta ended the year with 157 murders, the most in more than two decades. Many, including the mayor, have suggested the coronavirus pandemic and the spike in unemployment played a part in the violence, referring to it as the “COVID crime wave” during her address Wednesday.

But the surge in shootings has seemingly continued into 2021, even as coronavirus cases are falling and millions of Americans are being vaccinated.

“We definitely had a spike and it appears to continue through this year,” Flynn said of Gwinnett’s homicides.

In neighboring DeKalb County, separate shootings left two men dead Monday night. The first was reported about 6:30 p.m. and the second happened about 3½ hours later during a fight in a neighborhood south of Decatur. Then Wednesday morning, a man was shot and killed by DeKalb police after reportedly pointing a gun at officers during a foot chase, authorities said.

It was one of two deadly police shootings in metro Atlanta within a 12-hour span. Hours earlier, a woman was killed and a Douglas County deputy was injured during a shooting inside a Lithia Springs motorcycle dealership.

Elsewhere, one man was injured Tuesday evening during a shooting at a Cobb County Mexican restaurant and another was struck by gunfire hours later while driving on the Downtown Connector in Atlanta. Neither of those incidents was fatal.

Meanwhile, a bill introduced in the Georgia Legislature aimed at relaxing certain gun laws failed to cross the finish line at the end of this year’s session.

House Bill 218 sought to make it easier for travelers to bring their guns into the state. Senators later included a proposal that would have allowed probate judges to process concealed carry permits and license renewals online. Currently, applicants must go to the court in person. The legislation also would have prohibited the governor from closing weapons manufacturing businesses or shooting ranges during a public emergency.

At the national level, President Joe Biden has called for more restrictive gun laws following the recent mass shootings in Georgia and Colorado.

Speaking less than a day after 10 people were killed when a gunman opened fire inside a Boulder supermarket, Biden proposed a ban on assault-style rifles and high-capacity magazines, as well as an expansion on background checks during gun sales.

“I don’t need to wait another minute, let alone an hour, to take common-sense steps that will save lives in the future and to urge my colleagues in the House and Senate to act,” Biden said.

Paulding County’s first homicide of the year came last week when a 21-year-old was shot to death during an argument in a Hiram-area neighborhood. The sheriff’s office investigated just three in 2021, according to Henson. A 19-year-old has been charged with murder in the case.

Henson said it seems people are quick to reach for guns nowadays rather than settling their disputes “hand-to-hand.”

“I don’t know if it’s that they don’t understand the consequences of their actions or if they truly don’t care,” he said.

The deadly shooting upended the lives of two families, Henson said: The family of the man killed and the family of the teenager who now faces the possibility of life in prison.

“He’ll never get out of prison,” Henson said. “I mean, he might one day, but he’s going to be an old man.”