CHICAGO - Amaria Jones, 13, was in the living room of her West Side Chicago home showing her mom a new TikTok dance when a stray bullet came through the front window, pierced her neck and lodged in the TV.
The spray of bullets outside also wounded two boys, 15 and 16, sitting on the front porch.
Amaria was rushed to the hospital and pronounced dead.
"Imagine having a little sister, 13, who's not even beginning to live life yet and you have to dress her up for a homegoing service. You have to pick out her clothes, her hair, her casket. You have to pick out the pictures," said Mercedes Jones, 27. "I just don't want to come to terms with reality. I won't have my sister anymore."
Amaria's heart-wrenching death was one of many in a summer of violence playing out across the nation. Shootings are on the rise in several cities amid the social and economic upheaval of a public health crisis and a movement for racial justice - and young children are the ones being caught in the crossfire.
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"Due to the pandemic as well as a confluence of factors, we've just seen a truly perfect storm develop in communities that are already grappling with systemic inequity and a lack of access to opportunity," said Michael-Sean Spence, director of policy and implementation for Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit advocating for gun control. "Cites are grappling with dual pandemics."
Amaria was more than Mercedes' only sister. She was like a daughter and a best friend. She could fit into all of Mercedes' clothes and would walk around their grandma's house in her high heels, dancing and listening to gospel music. Mercedes taught her how to braid and flat iron hair. They got their nails done and went shopping together.
When Mercedes would pick up an UberEats shift after work at a hair salon, Amaria - nicknamed "Ya-ya" - would hop in the car and ride around with her, sipping caramel frappés from McDonald's and recording funny videos.
"She was just so happy. She was a people's person," Mercedes said of Amaria, who wanted to be a lawyer. "Amaria would fight for whatever she thought was right."
Children 'are dying in the streets'
Amaria was one of at least 12 minors fatally shot in Chicago in the past month - many while playing outside, riding in a car or sitting on a couch - and many more have been wounded.
The same day Amaria was killed, 3-year-old Mekhi James was killed two hours earlier, a little over a mile away. He was sitting in the backseat of his father's car on their way home from a haircut. That weekend, 104 people were shot in Chicago, 15 of them fatally, including three more minors. Dozens more were shot and killed over the following weekends.
"Children are dying in the streets for a fourth weekend in a row," said West Side pastor Rev. Marshall Hatch, who said he's attended several of the children's funerals and gave a sermon Sunday on the deaths of so many children. "Something is tragically wrong in what we're doing and what we value. People are despondent about it - that this is what it's come to."
The most deadly weekend in Chicago came at the end of May amid protests and looting in the city, when 85 people were shot, 24 fatally.
Overall crime rates - including violent crime rates - are still low across the U.S. But homicides and shootings are on the rise this year in Chicago, New York, Atlanta, D.C., Philadelphia, Houston, Charlotte, Denver, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Kansas City.
As the nation's largest city on Monday celebrated the first time in months that no one died from COVID-19 over a 24-hour period, New York City observed a moment of silence for 1-year-old Davell Gardner Jr., who was fatally shot in his stomach while sitting in a stroller at a Brooklyn cookout Sunday night.
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"You can never look away from something like this and be numb to it," Mayor Bill de Blasio said in his Monday news conference. "We can never give up on our children."
As of July 5, shootings were up 53% from the same time last year in New York City, according to police.
In Atlanta, where 8-year-old Secoriea Turner was fatally shot on Independence Day, shootings were up 23% from last year as of July 4, according to police.
In Chicago, shootings increased 46% from the same time last year as of July 12, according to police.
'Davon won't be there'
In Washington, D.C., where the killing of 11-year-old Davon McNeal has rattled the nation's capital, homicides are up 24% from the same time last year, and assault with a dangerous weapon is up 1%, according to police.
Davon's mother, who works as violence interrupter in the city, was hosting a July 4 community peace cookout in Southeast D.C. Davon had just stepped out of his mother's car when two groups fired at one another.
"Davon was in the middle, and he got shot," said Davon's grandfather, John Ayala. "There are moments when you want to break down. But I'm holding on because I have to."
Davon had been a star football player, Ayala said. He started playing when he was 6, taking after his older brother.
"Once he started playing, he became the most valuable player," Ayala said. "He wanted to go to the NFL and buy his momma a big house. He's never going to get the opportunity to pursue that dream now."
Ayala said that Davon had been learning from his mother how to be a positive influence in the community. He helped her with the peace cookout and assisted in book and coat drives.
"He was learning at a young age about how to be a role model," Ayala said.
Ayala said he's been reflecting on all of his favorite memories with Davon - when he'd throw him in the pool in the summer, when they went to Six Flags, when he'd run around the house trying to catch him while yelling "boy kiss boy kiss!"
Ayala and his wife had planned to take Davon and their other grandkids on the annual trip to Orlando the weekend that he was killed, but they had canceled the trip because of the pandemic.
"Our granddaughter who is 8, we did a balloon release the other day, and she was crying because of that. She said next time we go on trips, Davon won't be there," Ayala said.
3 factors behind the uptick in violence
Gun violence researchers and community outreach workers say the recent uptick in gun violence is the result of three main factors: the typical summertime spike in shootings, the coronavirus pandemic and nationwide social unrest.
The violence has hurt Black and Hispanic children and teens, in particular, Spence said. Annually, about 3,000 children and teens are shot and killed, according to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control's Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System. According to researchers, Black children and teens, in particular, are 14 times more likely than their white counterparts to die by gun homicide.
"Right now, there are stresses everywhere. People are staying home. People are out of jobs. There's social unrest. All of these things can push an epidemic problem to become worse, and that's what happening with violence," said Charlie Ransford, director of science and policy at Cure Violence, a Chicago-based nonprofit combating gun violence. "It's a contagious problem."
Demeatreas Whatley, a South Side Chicago community violence interrupter with CureViolence for more than a decade, said the violence has hit home for him. Whatley said his 14-year-old niece was shot in the hand, arm and side Tuesday night while waiting at a bus stop with friends. Earlier this week, Whatley's 22-year-old nephew was shot in both arms, breaking his bones.
Whatley said he believes the closure of parks, beaches, bars and clubs because of the pandemic is also leading people to spend more time outside, on the block, where it's easier to find and identify the targets of retaliatory shootings.
"Once people are forced to leave these places, they come to the blocks," Whatley said. "They're doing social media and all that makes it convenient for a shooter to find their locations. They'll come to the end of the block and shoot down the block, not knowing who's on the block."
'This is about social inequality'
The pandemic has exacerbated the root causes of gun violence, such as income inequality, Hatch, the West Side pastor, said. The violence is the "despair and depravity that goes along from people being valued less, disinvested in."
A USA TODAY analysis of ZIP code data found that, in Chicago and nationwide, low-income and minority communities have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. Many of the same Black and brown communities have borne the brunt of layoffs from the economic fallout of the outbreak.
Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown said that high poverty levels in neighborhoods on the city's South and West sides were contributing to the violence.
"This is about the lack of opportunity. That's not a policing issue. This is about social inequality," he said.
Researchers say the uptick could also have something to do with an increase in gun purchases. A recent study from the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis, found a significant increase in firearm violence in the U.S. associated with the coronavirus pandemic-related surge in firearm purchasing.
There were more than 2 million excess firearm purchases from March through May - a 64.3% increase over expected volume, according to the study. In May, interpersonal firearm violence increased substantially: 17% more injuries than expected. Researchers estimated an increase of 776 injuries over what would have been expected had no increase in purchasing occurred: a 7.8% increase over the 3-month period.
"We found that states with greater increases in firearm purchasing were more likely to experience increases in firearm violence," said Julia Schleimer, one of the authors of the study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed.
Christopher Herrmann, a former New York City police officer and an assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said nationwide anti-police sentiment is also contributing to the surge.
"At the beginning of COVID, police were hailed as heroes because they were front-line workers. After the Floyd incident, that quickly turned from hero to villain," Herrman said.
That sentiment encourages cops to take a more "hands-off, nonconfrontational approach," he said, breeding a mentality of, "I'm not going to do any of the proactive work because I'm more concerned about getting in trouble or ending up on the front page."
'Enough is enough'
Dozens of young people marched through several neighborhoods on Chicago's South Side on Saturday to demand more resources to combat gun violence. One protester held a sign with photos of young people killed by gun violence and the words, "Enough is enough. I'm tired of seeing my friends in caskets and urns."
- Colin Boyle (@colinbphoto) July 11, 2020
For Mercedes, it's still hard to get out of bed every day. She's hasn't returned to work since her sister's killing. And she's trying to raise her 7-year-old son in the same neighborhood where her sister - and cousin - were fatally shot.
"I don't know what to say to my 7-year-old child who wants answers to something he shouldn't even know about," she said.
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Amaria always wanted a Pandora charm bracelet, Mercedes said. So for her homegoing service, Mercedes bought her one.
"When her birthday comes up, or Christmas, I want fill this up - fill it all the way up and place it somewhere to cherish. Everything that she missed," Mercedes said. "I want her to know that we're still proud of her, and we're still going to celebrate her. Even when she was supposed to graduate high school, or college, I'm going to be there, and I'm going to put a charm on her bracelet. Just to let her know."
Last weekend, Mercedes went to the cemetery to visit her sister. She brought her some purple press-on nails, polish for her toes, a little picture of herself and a pen.
"I took her a purple little gel pen so she can write to me or come to me in my dreams so she can tell me how it's like on the other side, if she's OK," Mercedes said. "I just want her to tell me, how is it so far. I'm with you every step of the way."
Follow Grace Hauck on Twitter at @grace_hauck.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Gun violence: Shootings on the rise in some cities across the nation