building with Muskegon written on it
This is the police building in Muskegon Heights, Michigan

Shots Fired: Understanding Gun Violence in Mansfield

This is the seventh installment in a nine-part series focused on gun violence and possible ideas to address this issue in Mansfield. These stories will run on consecutive days starting Oct. 9 and running through Oct. 16.

MANSFIELD — Malon Samuel hardly recognizes the city of his childhood. The 2014 Mansfield Senior graduate knows his hometown can do better.

Samuel is an advisor for G.E.A.R UP, Mansfield City Schools’ early intervention program designed to provide support and resources to the district’s low-income students. He has witnessed the the devastating effects the growing gun violence epidemic has had on the city’s young people.

He knows there’s no quick fix.

“But something has got to be done,” Samuel said. “It can’t go on like this.”

Mansfield police have investigated eight homicides so far in 2023, the most in at least 10 years according to figures provided by the department. There were six homicides in all of 2022.

The specter of gun violence wasn’t nearly as prevalent just a decade ago, the 27-year-old Samuel said.

“For me, growing up here, it wasn’t as bad. You would get kids fighting, but that was usually the end of it,” Samuel said. “The number of people under the age of 30 being killed, it’s happening at an alarming rate.”

Gun violence is hardly exclusive to Mansfield.

Cities all across the country have seen an increase in violent crimes involving firearms in recent years.

The surge was exacerbated by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, when feelings of loneliness and anxiety festered and gun sales sky-rocketed.

Before Mansfield can try to solve its gun-violence problem, city officials first must understand its scope. Forward-thinking cities across the country are providing a blueprint.

Muskegon Heights, Michigan has partnered with the Michigan Youth Violence Prevention Center (MI-YVPC) on a project called Building Evidence for Firearm Violence Prevention.

MI-YVPC is a research center headquartered at the University of Michigan School of Public Health and is funded by a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

MI-YVPC works with community organizations to establish strategies to promote the prevention of youth gun violence.

In Muskegon Heights, one of those partner community organizations is called G.U.N.S., an acronym for Gaining Unity Through Non-Violent Solutions.

The mission of the organization is to reduce gun violence in Muskegon County by providing young people with the resources and support, “to help make life less cumbersome,” co-founder Janet Robinson said.

“We need to be there for our youth and look for innovative solutions on how to reach them,” Robinson told MI-YVPC. “We want our youth to feel comfortable coming to us, knowing we are listening and are there to help, without any hidden agenda.”

Situated on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, Muskegon County is not unlike Richland County. The city of Muskegon is the county seat and the anchor city of the Muskegon Metropolitan Statistical Area. 

Muskegon Heights, a city of 9,951 which borders Muskegon to the south, is among the most dangerous cities in Michigan. Its violent crime rate was more than five times higher than the national average in 2019.

There are several factors that contribute to gun violence and they all must be addressed, Muskegon Heights Police chief Maurice Sain said during a 2022 MI-YVPC listening session.

“We all have to take accountability,” Sain told ABC affiliate WZZM at the time. “It’s no one person’s problem, no silver bullet. You can’t arrest your way out of this situation.

“We have to come together as a community.”

Sain emphasized the contributing factors that lead to problems that end in violence.

“Some of the issues as it relates to education and healthcare for black and brown people, the poverty level, maybe installing some parenting programs and just trying to introduce kids to positive outreaches,” the chief said.

Part of MI-YVPC’s strategy is to assist grassroots organizations like G.U.N.S. in establishing best practices that can be shared with other communities.

A playbook of programs and initiatives that worked in curbing gun violence in Muskegon could be tailored to address the gun violence problem in Mansfield.

Michelle Tyson believes transforming a community starts with reaching its kids. Tyson is the driving force behind Taking Back Muskegon, a resident-run organization that aims to curb violence through activities, programs and events for local youth.

Strategies that work in Mansfield, might help other communities in need, too.

Mansfield City Schools launched its own gun violence prevention initiative, Peace On My Block, at the start of this school year.

The program, which involves several area agencies and is endorsed by the police department and city council, aims to reduce violence, bullying and racial discrimination.

“We know that in the last year there has been a series of violent events in our community,” Mansfield City Schools Superintendent Stan Jefferson told City Council in August. “We know that great communities are great because the school district and the community come together.

“That’s why we call it a school community. We are one great school community.”

Mansfield’s gun violence problem is a complex one and not easily solved but with more gun violence prevention research available through research organizations like MI-YVPC, the battle is far from over.

“There have been a lot of young people pass away in the past 12 to 18 months in Mansfield and a lot of them were lost to gun violence,” G.E.A.R. UP’s Samuel said. “It’s an issue that needs to be addressed and quickly.”