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In late 2019, Kayla Gatto was in her Norfolk apartment with her sister and a friend.

What was a regular afternoon suddenly turned into life-threatening chaos.

Someone outside started shooting through one of the apartment windows, forcing Gatto, the sister and friend to drop to the floor and find cover.

By the time the gunfire stopped, 13 bullets had flown through the apartment. One was lodged in Gatto’s leg. Another grazed her arm.

“I thought I was gonna die,” she said.

Gatto said she believes she knows who the shooter was, but hasn’t been able to prove it to law enforcement. The case remains unsolved.

After surgery and months of therapy, Gatto’s leg recovered. Her emotions still haven’t.

She suffers from severe post traumatic stress disorder and fears strangers and people she doesn’t trust. Loud noises cause her to panic and cry.

“One time I was driving down the road and picking up my kids from school after work, and someone’s car backfired.” Gatto said. “I immediately pull over...I’m like, “Kids, lay down. Get low!’”

Gatto is one of several gun violence victims who believe Hampton Roads residents experience too many shootings. They want cities around the region to formally declare gun violence a public health crisis, a step Richmond and other cities around the country have taken recently.

Activists say doing so could lead officials to focus more on the root causes of gun violence and address lingering trauma that communities experience after a shooting.

“This is a disease that literally spreads,” Gatto said. “Not only have I experienced it, I have friends that I’ve known since high school that are now dead due to gun violence.”

The calls for the declaration come after an especially bloody year in Hampton Roads:

  • Norfolk experienced 202 shootings in 2020, 28% more than the previous year.
  • In Portsmouth, 30 people died from a gunshot wound, compared to 16 in 2019.
  • Hampton recorded 122 shootings in 2020, 23 of which were homicides. A year earlier, 14 murders were linked to firearms.
  • Newport News saw 19 people die from a gunshot wound in 2020. The city recorded 81 shootings, compared to 79 in 2019.
  • In 2020, Chesapeake recorded 39 shootings and 16 homicides linked to firearms. In 2019, the city experienced 38 shootings, and 6 murders were committed with a gun.

Data about shootings in Virginia Beach wasn’t immediately released by the city’s police department.

Similar increases of gun violence in Richmond, Washington D.C. and Nashville, Tenn. have led those cities to formally identify the issue as a public health crisis.

The Richmond declaration in early May came with detailed plans to strengthen efforts to defuse neighborhood disputes before they turn violent.

Programs also will offer counseling, mentorship, employment opportunities and other positive experiences in underserved communities that experience gun violence.

Activists say cities in Hampton Roads should make similar commitments that target entrenched socioeconomic inequities — like poverty, poor housing and lack of education and job opportunities — that fuel shootings. They emphasize a response beyond police work and prosecutions.

“These young men and women need an outlet. They need jobs to keep them off the streets. They need childcare to keep from quitting a job,” said Monica Atkins, founder of the group Stop The Violence 757.

Atkins, whose son died in a Portsmouth shooting in 2014, said the COVID-19 pandemic inspired her to demand a stronger response to shootings.

If governments can race to find a solution to the coronavirus and its economic fallout, she said, why can’t they do the same for gun violence?

“I’m looking for some type of urgency because this epidemic is just wiping out young men and women,” she said.

Mayors around Hampton Roads attribute the recent increase in gun violence to the COVID-19 pandemic. With many people experiencing economic distress and at home more often, they say conditions have been ripe for more shootings.

The mayors acknowledge that gun violence is a problem in the region and say they’re working to develop more solutions. They recently met with each other and a consultant from the national gun violence prevention group Cities United to discuss strategies they could implement regionwide.

Hampton Mayor Donnie Tuck and Newport News Mayor McKinley Price said they would consider declaring gun violence a public health crisis. They noted their cities already practice strategies beyond policing to curb gun violence.

“One thing that we’re trying to focus on primarily is putting in place those individuals who can do outreach,” Tuck told WHRO. “Those individuals who witnessed the trauma, experienced the trauma, put them in touch with mental health professionals.”

Virginia Beach Mayor Bobby Dyer initially told WHRO he would also consider declaring gun violence a public health crisis.

He then changed his statement, saying he may ask City Council to declare all violence a public health crisis.

“Whether it be guns, a baseball bat, a ball-ping hammer or a knife, all can be used to inflict harm on somebody else,” Dyer said.