Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
People evacuate after a gang-related shooting at Fashion Place Mall in Murray on Sunday, Jan. 13, 2019.

While patrons and employees at the Fashion Place Mall first reacted to sounds of gunfire as a possible assault by a mass shooter, the reality of what is suspected to have happened there on Sunday is disturbing in its own right.

It is an example of the prevalence and persistence of gang-related violence along the Wasatch Front.

The incident is among perhaps a dozen separate cases of gang-involved shootings in only the past several months. Because it occurred at a popular and crowded venue, the case will receive prominence in news coverage, even though the nature of the incident itself is by no means uncommon. And despite efforts on the state and local level to beef up tactics to reduce gang activity, incidents of violent confrontation and other crimes connected to gang membership continue to rise.

The National Gang Center, a resource organization for law enforcement and community groups, regularly tracks incidents of gang violence, and its current list is full of reports of cases involving gang members in Utah accused of violence with guns. One involves another shooting at another shopping mall. In that case, a 19-year-old gang member is accused of firing at another gang member outside the Valley Fair Mall on Sept. 9. He is also accused of firing twice at a car following a confrontation with rival gang members outside the Jordan Landing shopping district in West Jordan on Sept. 17.

The two men arrested in the Fashion Place shooting are also 19 years old, validating the concerns of police agencies regarding the rising rate of violent incidents among younger offenders. Statewide crime statistics show that of the 80 homicides that occurred in 2017, more than a quarter of the victims were under 21 years old. Among the cases in which charges were filed, 16 of them involved defendants also under the age of 21. Fifteen other suspects were between 22 and 26 years old and, according to police, the majority of assailants and victims in those cases had documented gang ties.

That year’s wave of juvenile gang violence prompted the Utah Legislature in the 2018 session to pass a resolution calling for a stepped-up effort to address gang activity among police agencies, schools and community groups. The Concurrent Resolution on Reducing Gang Activity referenced “increasing incidents of gang-related violence and homicides” in Utah, and called for “a comprehensive and collaborative approach” to curb gang-related behavior by focusing on ways to effectively intervene in neighborhoods where gang recruitment is prevalent.

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While legislative resolutions are more about encouragement than requirement, it’s appropriate to inquire now as to how much, if any impact that policy message has had in the year since. A focus on gang activity is unquestionably a priority among most law enforcement agencies, and there are a variety of programs in schools to ameliorate the problem. What more can be done on a statewide level? That’s a good follow-up question for this year’s Legislature.

The roots of gang formation are complex and deeply entrenched. They are a cultural manifestation of various influences, not the least of which are inter-generational poverty and a pattern of disconnection of some groups from the broader community. The upsetting incident at Fashion Place again sheds light on a problem that won’t be reversed without focused and long-term efforts across levels of government, family and community interaction.