Many Oaklanders say they don't feel safe. Homicides have skyrocketed in Oakland, California, and other U.S. cities in the past few years, fueled by the covid-19 pandemic, the police killing of George Floyd, and rising gun ownership, experts say. (Shelby Knowles for KFF Health News)
Oakland, California CNN  — 

The red-tipped bullet pierces skin and melts into it, Javier Velasquez Lopez explains. The green-tipped bullet penetrates armored vests. And the hollow-tipped bullet expands as it tears through bodies.

At 19, Velasquez Lopez knows a lot about ammunition because many of his friends own guns, he said. They carry to defend themselves in East Oakland, where metal bars protect shop windows and churches stand behind tall, chain-link fences.

Some people even hide AR-15-style assault weapons down their pants legs, he said.

“It doesn’t feel safe. Wherever you’re at, you’re always anxious,” said Velasquez Lopez, who dreams of leaving the city where he was born. “You’re always wondering what’s going to happen.”

Last year, two gunmen in ski masks stormed his high school, killing a school district carpenter and injuring five other adults, including two students.

Oakland won acclaim just a few years ago as a national model for gun violence prevention, in part by bringing police and community groups together to target the small number of people suspected of driving the gun violence.

Then, in 2020, the covid-19 pandemic shut down schools, businesses, and critical social services nationwide, leaving many low-income people isolated and desperate — facing the loss of their jobs, homes, or both. The same year, police murdered George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis, which released pent-up fury over racial discrimination by law enforcement, education, and other institutions — sparking nationwide protests and calls to cut police funding.

In the midst of this racial reckoning and facing the threats of an unknown and deadly virus, Americans bought even more guns, forcing some cities, such as Raleigh, North Carolina; Chicago; New York City; and Oakland, to confront a new wave of violent crime.

“There was emotional damage. There was physical damage,” said James Jackson, CEO of Alameda Health System, whose Wilma Chan Highland Hospital Campus, a regional trauma center in Oakland, treated 502 gunshot victims last year, compared with 283 in 2019. “And I think some of this violence that we’re seeing is a manifestation of the damage that people experienced.”

James Jackson, CEO of the Alameda Health System, says Wilma Chan Highland Hospital Campus in Oakland, California, has an opportunity to help break the cycle of violence, in part by helping patients get preventive care instead of waiting for an emergency. The hospital also hosts a weekly farmers market so patients and community members can buy fresh produce. (Shelby Knowles for KFF Health News)

Jackson is among a growing chorus of health experts who describe gun violence as a public health crisis that disproportionately affects Black and Hispanic residents in poor neighborhoods, the very people who disproportionately struggle with Type 2 diabetes and other preventable health conditions. Covid further eviscerated these communities, Jackson added.

While the pandemic has retreated, gun violence has not. Oaklanders, many of whom take pride in the ethnic diversity of their city, are overwhelmingly upset about the rise in violent crime — the shootings, thefts, and other street crimes. At town halls, City Council meetings, and protests, a broad cross-section of residents say they no longer feel safe.

Programs that worked a few years ago don’t seem to be making a dent now. City leaders are spending millions to hire more police officers and fund dozens of community initiatives, such as placing violence prevention teams at high schools to steer kids away from guns and crime.

Yet gun ownership in America is at a historic high, even in C