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Angry Drivers, Lots of Guns: An Explosion in Road Rage Shootings

HOUSTON — The trouble started with an argument between two drivers merging in slow traffic after an Astros baseball game last summer. It ended with two gunshots, fired from a moving Buick and exploding through the glass of a fleeing Ford pickup truck.

The bullets missed the truck’s driver, Paul Castro, but one — just one — struck his teenage son, David, who sat in the passenger seat. As Mr. Castro drove to get help, a 911 operator told him to apply pressure to the wound at the back of his son’s head. But David did not make it.

The random pointlessness of the killing shocked Houston. But it was one of dozens of similar incidents across the country over the past year amid an explosion of shootings and killings attributed to rage on the road.

These eruptions of sudden violence — a man in Tulsa, Okla., firing repeatedly after an argument at a red light; a Georgia driver shot while on a family road trip — are not unique to any part of America, among a population that is increasingly on edge and carrying guns. But they have been perhaps most pronounced on the roads of Texas.

“In the past, people curse one another, throw up the finger and keep moving,” Mayor Sylvester Turner of Houston said in an interview. “Now instead of throwing up the finger, they’re pulling out the gun and shooting.”

As more motorists seemed to be firing guns last year, the Dallas Police Department began tracking road rage shootings for the first time. The results were alarming: 45 people wounded, 11 killed.

In Austin last year, the police recorded 160 episodes of drivers pointing or firing a gun; this year, there have been 15 road rage shootings, with three people struck. (Two others were stabbed in altercations stemming from road rage.)

The prevalence of such violence, not just in Texas but around the country, suggests a cultural commonality, an extreme example of deteriorating behavior that has also flared on airplanes and in stores. It is as if the pandemic and the nation’s sour mood have left people forgetting how to act in public at the same time as they were buying millions more weapons.

“It’s the same sort of ball of wax: People getting frustrated, feeling strained and acting out toward others,” said Charis E. Kubrin, a criminologist at the University of California, Irvine. “One thing that we do know is that there has been a huge rise in gun sales,” she added.

Last month, a woman driving with her dog shot and wounded another motorist in Oklahoma City. In Miami, a man fired 11 shots from his car on Interstate 95 in what he has said was self-defense. A Los Angeles couple is set to stand trial for firing into a car during morning rush hour last year, killing a 6-year-old boy on his way to kindergarten.

Criminologists cautioned that any theory of motivation behind road rage shootings is hampered by a lack of data. Most police departments do not keep statistics on road rage episodes, in part because it is not itself a crime category. There is no federal database.

Arizona has tried to get a rough approximation of the number of road rage incidents, adding a box for “possible road rage” to the form filled out by police officers for car crashes in 2018. The data showed an increase in such incidents in 2021 compared with the previous two years, according to Alberto Gutier, the director of the Arizona Governor’s Office of Highway Safety.

“It’s going crazy,” he said of road rage. “People are so stupid.”

But, he added, the state does not track the number of episodes that end up in gunfire.

For its report on an increase in road rage shootings, the gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety relied on the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit that compiles data from government sources and media reports. The group found that more than 500 people had been injured or killed in reported road rage shootings last year, up from fewer than 300 in 2019.

“The story that it’s telling is a definite and really worrying increase in incidents of road rage involving a gun,” said Sarah Burd-Sharps, the senior director of research at Everytown for Gun Safety. “Only in this country is someone shot and injured or killed every 17 hours in a road rage incident.”

Texas accounted for a quarter of the fatal shootings last year that were documented in the study, with 33 people killed in road rage shootings in the state, up from 18 in 2019.

Among them was David Castro, the 17-year-old who died in Houston in July. David played percussion in his high school marching band, wanted to study engineering in college and hoped to get his driver’s license by the end of the summer.

“I was going over lessons with him as we drove,” his father said in an interview, recalling a conversation with David before the shooting as they hit heavy traffic after the Astros game downtown. David’s 14-year-old brother was also in the car.

After letting several cars merge into his lane, Mr. Castro began to pull forward in his pickup. That is when a white Buick attempted to edge into the lane, he said. Neither yielded ground; eventually the two cars were touching. There was a “verbal altercation,” according to a court record.

A police officer directing traffic told Mr. Castro to let the Buick in. “So I let him in,” he said. “David was nervous. But I was like, whatever that was, it’s over.”

But it wasn’t.

On the highway, the Buick started flashing its lights and honking, Mr. Castro said. “I tried to get away and he stayed right behind me,” Mr. Castro said. As he took a turnaround lane under a highway, he heard two shots. The rear window shattered. David, seated in the passenger seat, was struck in the back of the head.

“I just started screaming. And he kept chasing us,” Mr. Castro said. “This was not a road rage incident — this was a grown man who took the life of a child because his feelings got hurt.”

The police eventually made an arrest in the case, charging Gerald Wayne Williams, 35, with murder. Mr. Williams has since been released on bond. “I can’t think of anything more tragic,” a lawyer for Mr. Williams, Casey Keirnan, said of the killing. But, he said, “my client denies that he is the person who shot him.”

The case drew widespread attention in Texas, as did another in Houston involving a 9-year-old girl, Ashanti Grant, who was shot and seriously wounded in February while riding with her family to a grocery store.

“It is unique to this moment,” Mr. Turner said. “I’m a native Houstonian. I’m in my seventh year as mayor. We have just not had it to the point where it has been a noticeable event, except in the last year.”

Mr. Turner said that a string of deadly cases had prompted the city to take steps to reconfigure its traffic cameras to preserve recordings, to eventually help catch roadway shooters.

In Texas, drivers have been allowed to carry firearms without a license in their cars since 2007, a law known as the Texas Motorist Protection Act. A new measure, enacted last year, allows most Texans to carry a handgun in public without a license.

Online, there are videos and trainings that offer tips for carrying and using a gun inside of a car.

Jacob Paulsen, who teaches an online course called “vehicle firearm tactics,” said that escaping should always be the driver’s aim. “Your primary objective is your own survival,” Mr. Paulsen said. “If your primary objective is to punish someone else, or to make sure that other person is in jail or gets justice, those are not good mind-sets.”

The guns used in road rage episodes in Dallas are often legally owned, said Detective Christina Smith of the Dallas Police Department, who investigates such shootings. “But having a legal firearm, you still have a responsibility for what you do with that,” she added.

The cases pose problems for the police because they almost always occur between strangers, on roadways without cameras. “The few that I have been able to find and actually arrest, it boils down to disrespect,” Detective Smith said. “When you reduce it at its core, the reasons are silly.”

The police in Dallas have been compiling a running report on road rage episodes, with data on the time and place of each reported incident as well as whether it involved a gun. They found that events tend to cluster in the afternoon.

“It seems to be happening around rush hour, in traffic, when people are going home,” said Maj. Mark Villarreal, who is helping lead an effort by the police in Dallas this year to crack down on aggressive driving. “It’s happenstance. It’s a crime of passion.”

That makes each case difficult to solve, said Lt. Kyle Cones of the Houston Police Department. Most escalate from a routine indignity, he said.

“I read every report that comes across, and every actual specific maneuver that they said led to it is they say they got cut off,” the lieutenant said.

That was the case, he said, in the shooting of Ashanti, who was placed in a medically induced coma. “It was a cut-off type deal,” he said.

As gunfire erupted, Lieutenant Cones said, Ashanti’s family members in the car got low. But Ashanti, who was watching a video with headphones on, did not.

Mr. Castro, David’s father, said having a gun in the car only made such tragedies more likely.

“What I want people to do,” he said, “is talk to their husband, talk to their brother, talk to their son, and say, ‘Do you really need a loaded weapon in the cab of your vehicle?’”

Alain Delaquérière contributed research.