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Roy S. Johnson: Jefferson Co. Commissioner caught in gun crossfire is all-too-common experience for all-too many logo 8/4/2022 Roy S. Johnson,
Bessemer Police © Carol Robinson | crobinson/ Bessemer Police

This is an opinion column.

No one wants to experience this hell, though too many do.

No one wants to be caught in a hail of gunfire, though too many are.

Far too many in cities across the state, across the nation, live with gunfire as a near constant, like cicadas on Southern summer nights.

Far too many of our neighbors know the drill: When guns erupt, drop, duck, run, or some combination of the three. Oh, and pray.

Pray you’re not shot. Pray no one near you is shot. Pray no one you love is shot. Or killed.

Though far too many are.

Last Sunday afternoon, Jefferson County Commissioner Sheila Tyson was driving along the Bessemer Superhighway between 18th and 19th Streets. She was delivering two fans to a resident whose air conditioner had stopped working, and picking up jewelry someone in Bessemer had made for her. Tyson was checking her GPS.

“I heard a gunshot,” she said. “I could see something—phush, phush, phush—passing the windshield of my car. I said, ‘Oh, shit,’ and bent down into the passenger seat. I went through the light and bullets was still coming. I hit the curb and bounced off it. I looked up and they were shooting at each other—[people in a] black car and white car, shooting at each other shooting back and forth.

“I whipped into Walgreens and the gunshots were still coming. I was trying to get out but when I looked up I saw two or three people on the ground. I didn’t know whether they’d got shot or what. There’s another car that was hit. Someone tried to help me get into Walgreens. People were laying on the floor. I’m talking thee-thirty, four o’clock in the broad open daylight.

“It makes no damn sense. I thought I was dead. That I’m not is only by the grace of God.”

According to the Bessemer police report, 12 9mm shell casings were found on the 1800 Block of 9th Avenue.

“Two vehicles shot at each other on 9th Avenue at 18-19th Streets,” says Lt. Christian Clemons of the Bessemer Police Department. “An innocent third party’s vehicle was struck by one of the bullets. No injuries to anyone. Neither of the cars involved stayed on scene.”

The car struck was not Tyson’s.

“Later, I had to pull my car over, I was shaking like a limb. I coulda got killed. I thought I was dead. That I’m not is only by the grace of God.”

Tyson is far from alone, her experience far from unique.

Gun violence this summer is rising faster than temperatures. Birmingham’s homicide soared 47 percent in July. There were 17 homicides in the month, including six over four days. In July 2021, there were eight gun deaths.

On Tuesday, Mayor Randall Woodfin used a portion of his time addressing the City Council to speak on the violence. He began by noting recent conversations he had with Cynthia Rothstein, who prosecuted the man who murdered the mayor’s brother 10 years ago, and with Birmingham homicide detectives “to talk about what resources they need to bring justice to family members who’ve had a loved one taken.”

Woodfin also acknowledged Councilor Latonya Tate, whose nephew, Avien Mitchell, was gunned down in March.

His conversation with Rothstein “triggered what [his] family is going through,” the mayor said. As are other families in Birmingham and beyond. Too many.

“Many, many families are dealing with grief, dealing with pain, dealing with anger and sadness over the loss of a loved one,” he said. “I know there are a lot of different things in the streets, but no one deserves to be murdered.”

As he’s done before, Woodfin delineated the three areas of emphasis in the city’s effort to address gun violence: enforcement (including officer retention and technology), prevention (the city recently invested in a violence interrupter program), and re-entry (programs to reduce recidivism).

“That may not be enough, and the onus may not be on the ten of us,” he said. “It’s impossible for the ten of us to be in every home, in every private vehicle, to be in between every conflict in our community. What we can do is continue to use our platform to encourage people to make better choices.”

He noted the importance of continuing to lobby at the state level even though a law they passed last year “allow(s) fools to walk and drive around with guns.”

As he’s said before, Woodfin implored “law-abiding citizens” to lock their vehicles. “The number-one thing [thieves] are looking for and taking are legal guns.”

He lobbied gun manufacturers to produce more “smart” guns, which utilize technology (finger recognition or location-tracking) to ensure a weapon can only be fired by its owner (which may prevent accidental firing and suicides), or can’t be fired in a public space, such as a park or public building.

“This is where I want to think outside the box: Technology has done the county and the world some good service,” he said. “We need technology to open our cell phones—our thumbprint or facial recognition. It’s time for gun manufacturers to get smart on gun technology.

“This is a crisis,” he continued. “We can’t be silent about it. We need the public’s help, higher government’s help, law-abiding citizens’ help, and gun manufacturers’ help to solve this issue.”

It makes no damn sense.

A veteran, Tyson said Sunday: “I’ve never seen bullets fly across my face like that. I drove home in a damn war zone.”

No one wants that hell, but far too many have experienced it. And likely will.

Said Lt. Clemons in Bessemer: “We would like anyone to come forward that may have important information as to the type of cars involved to include the tag numbers.”

More by Roy S. Johnson

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She left Birmingham for entertainment industry, returned so other youth may not have to

The future of the Magic City Classic? It’s a no-brainer

Even in grief, Etheridge family honors legacy of Black generational entrepreneurism

After Chrissy Hutchinson’s damning January 6 testimony: Jesus, take this wheel

Roy S. Johnson is a 2021 Pulitzer Prize finalist for commentary and winner of 2021 Edward R. Morrow prize for podcasts: “Unjustifiable”, co-hosted with John Archibald. His column appears in The Birmingham News and, as well as the Huntsville Times, the Mobile Press-Register. Reach him at, follow him at, or on Instagram @roysj.

©2022 Advance Local Media LLC. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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