Interstate highway shootings surged during pandemic, ABC News analysis shows

NEW YORK — As the nation continues to grapple with mass shootings in New York and California this past weekend, a new analysis by ABC News and ABC's owned stations shows a startling rise in gun violence along interstate highways across the country over the last few years.

The analysis, which examined nearly 3,000 shootings that occurred on or near U.S. interstates from January 2018 through March 2022, found that interstate highway shootings across the country spiked alongside the overall surge in gun violence over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, with New Orleans, Chicago and Memphis seeing some of the biggest spikes.

Interstate highway shootings rose from 540 incidents in 2019 to 846 incidents in 2021 -- in increase of 57% -- according to the data, which was collected by the Gun Violence Archive, an independent research group.

In just the first three months of this year, at least 149 shooting incidents occurred along or near interstate highways, the data shows.

In all, the incidents resulted in 680 people killed and more than 1,600 people injured over the last four years and three months, according to the data.

The full report by ABC News Chief Justice Correspondent Pierre Thomas, "Highway Gunplay: An ABC News Investigation," will stream on ABC News Live Prime with Linsey Davis, Wednesday at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m.

The data collected by the Gun Violence Archive helps shed light on some of the nation's most dangerous stretches of highway out of the more than 47,000 miles of interstates across the country.

According to the data, I-10 in the New Orleans area has been the single most violent stretch of interstate in terms of gun incidents between 2019 and 2021. It's followed by I-94 in the Chicago area, I-240 in the Memphis area, I-35 in the Austin area and I-70 in the St. Louis area.

Courtney Bradford, a young man who was about to be married, was shot and killed late last year while riding as a passenger in a car on I-240 in Memphis. He and his fiancé had just bought a new home to share with their 5-year-old daughter.

"I've called him by mistake. It's very hard," Bradford's fiancé, Latoya Henley, told ABC News' Thomas about dealing with Bradford's death seven months ago.

The shooting that took Bradford's life was one of 121 interstate shootings Memphis Police responded to in 2021, according to data provided by the police department.

"What's even more unsettling is the fact that they're so reckless," Bradford's mother Tonja Rounds told ABC News. "You could be aiming at one particular individual -- but you're shooting on the expressway and people are driving by, so you could shoot anybody."

"It's very insane," Henley said. "I get antsy when I'm on the expressway."

Seven months after the shooting, Henley and Rounds say police don't appear to be any closer to determining who took Bradford's life. The shooting occurred at night, and surveillance cameras were unable to provide any details about the car that the shots came from.

"We just keep trusting and believing that someone is going to come forward," Rounds said.

Memphis, New Orleans, Chicago and Detroit are among the cities that have been hit hardest by the surge in highway shootings over the last few years, with the number of shootings increasing even more as the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the U.S.

Eight of the 10 stretches of interstates with the highest number of gun incidents between 2019 and 2021 are in those four cities, according to the Gun Violence Archive data. Shooting incidents on or near interstates in those cities alone killed at least 63 people and injured at least 284 others during that time, accounting for nearly 12% of all deaths and 23% of all injuries reported from interstate gun violence nationwide during those years.

I-10, which runs across the southern U.S. from Florida to California, had the highest number of interstate highway shootings during the pandemic period, including at least 79 incidents in Louisiana -- many of them occurring around New Orleans.

"You've got what police chiefs are calling the pandemic impact on crime," Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, told ABC News. "It cannot be underestimated."

"Traffic stops have decreased, so now a small altercation -- someone cuts someone off on the road -- that can quickly escalate," Wexler said. "And that altercation becomes a shooting, becomes a homicide."

During the pandemic years, between 2020 and 2021, the Gun Violence Archive data showed at least 121 interstate shootings in the Chicago area, averaging out to one incident every six days. The group found 73 incidents in the New Orleans area, 58 incidents in the Detroit area, 57 incidents in the Memphis are and 38 incidents in the St. Louis area.

The spike in highway shootings during the pandemic mirrors a surge in overall gun violence.

According to data released this month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, gun homicides increased 35% across the country during the pandemic, to the highest level in 25 years.

Firearm murders increased most markedly among youths and young adults, with the number of victims age 10-24 rising by 40%. People of color experienced the highest increase, as the number of Black male shooting victims age 10-24 years -- already 21 times higher than the number of white male victims of the same age -- increased even further in 2020.

An analysis of data provided by the Houston Police Department by ABC13 showed that homicides along the city's highways and streets doubled during the pandemic, driving a surge in the overall number of homicides in the city during the two pandemic years. Among those killed in Houston road rage incidents was 17-year-old David Castro, who was fatally shot last summer on I-10 while leaving an Astros baseball game, and Tyler Mitchell, who died earlier this month after being shot along the same interstate just before his 22nd birthday.

In California, the Gun Violence Archive identified more than 200 interstate highway shootings between January 2018 and March of 2022, with many of them occurring on I-5, I-80 and I-580. And additional shootings occurred on Southern California freeways that aren't part of the interstate system; last year, the California Highway Patrol reported at least 80 incidents of cars being shot at while traveling on SoCal freeways in just the one-month span between late April and late May, with the majority of them occurring along the 91 Freeway that runs from east of the 15 Freeway west toward the 605 Freeway.

Law enforcement officials say the nature of highway shootings typically makes them more difficult to track and solve that other types of shootings.

"The evidence and the crime scene is moving, sometimes 70, 80, 90 miles an hour," said Illinois State Police Director Brendan Kelly.

As a result, said Kelly, the Illinois State Police are adding patrols and increasing searches to identify people with illegal weapons in their cars. They've also added new cameras along interstates to try to better track suspects.

"We will use license plate readers, we will use our air operations, we will use our patrol officers that are out there, we will use canines, we will use all the tools at our disposal to be able to pursue the people that are responsible for this violence," Kelly said.

In the Detroit area, where the Detroit Police Department says they've seen an average of five freeway shootings a month over the past three years, the city has teamed up with more than three dozen other law enforcement agencies to launch "Operation Brison," a multi-city effort to crack down on freeway shootings after two-year-old Brison Christian was killed last year when someone opened fire on his family's vehicle on I-17 in what the police say was a case of mistaken identity.

Two alleged gang members have been charged with murder in the case.

But in Memphis, Latoya Henley is still waiting for resolution to her fiancé's murder.

"We don't know what happened at all," Henley told ABC News. "We don't know who's involved."

"I don't want anyone to ever feel what I feel," she said. "I pray a lot, 'cause the one thing I don't want to be is angry. Because that's what I was at first -- I was angry. I was confused. And I was in disbelief. And you know, some days, I'm still in disbelief."

ABC News’ Jack Date, Luke Barr and Alexandra Myers contributed to this report, along with Ross Weidner of WLS in Chicago, Courtney Carpenter of KTRK in Houston and Lindsey Feingold of KGO in San Francisco.

Watch "Highway Gunplay: An ABC News Investigation" on ABC News Live Prime with Linsey Davis, Wednesday at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m.