On Christmas day 2020, while millions of American families were navigating virtual holiday gatherings, Jeremy Hepker was sitting in an Iowa City hospital room holding the hand of Marisa Doolin, his teenage niece. Doolin had been shot in the face three days earlier and was in a medically induced coma to stop the swelling in her brain. The next day, Doolin’s family decided to take the 18-year-old off of life support.

“I felt so powerless, I felt so angry and I felt vengeful,” Hepker said.

Hepker, who remembers Doolin as “nurturing”, said he knew who had shot his niece the moment he heard about it – her boyfriend, who the family had worried was physically abusing the teen.

Hepker’s instincts turned out to be right. Doolin’s boyfriend had been on the run from an arrest warrant, when he traveled more than 400 miles from Michigan to Cedar Rapids, got a gun, and shot Doolin, according to prosecutors. He was convicted of manslaughter.

“There was no earthly reason [he] should have had a firearm. The fact he was able to access a firearm shows the issue with our society,” said Nick Maybanks, the prosecutor who handled Doolin’s case.

Doolin was one of at least 13 Black women who were killed in Iowa in 2020, more than six times the number who were killed the year before, when two Black women were slain, according to a Guardian analysis of Iowa’s public safety data. By comparison, the overall number of homicides in the state increased by about 63%, from 70 in 2019 to 111 in 2020. All but one Black woman killed in Iowa died from a gunshot wound, according to a Guardian analysis of public health data, police data and news clippings.

In 2020 and 2021, there was an unprecedented national rise in homicides, most of them committed with guns. Within this national increase was an alarming yet overlooked rise in the homicide rate for Black women.

capitol building

The Guardian looked back at 2020, a year also marked by the pandemic and nationwide protests for racial justice, and found that for Black women in the US, the homicide rate rose 33%. That’s a sharper increase than for every demographic except Black men, and more than double the rate of white women, according to a Guardian analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. Nearly half of the killings of Black women and girls nationwide in 2020 were committed by someone they knew – including partners, family members, friends and acquaintances.

In Iowa, a small, majority white, mostly rural state with a strong gun culture and few gun restrictions, this trend was particularly pronounced. Overall, Black residents represented half of the 106 people killed in Iowa in 2020, according to data from the CDC, despite making up 5% of the state’s population.

Getting this count of how many Black women were killed in recent years was surprisingly difficult. By the Iowa department of public safety’s count, there were 12 Black women killed in Iowa in 2020. But this left out at least two cases, which the Guardian found through local news reports: one of an 18-year-old who was shot and killed and one of a 10-year old who was killed in 2020 but whose body was not found until the next year. The race of another woman, who was shot and killed outside of a Waterloo bar in September, was marked as “unknown”, but she turned out to be African American.

The public safety department’s dataset also included two women who were allegedly killed outside of a bar in Polk county. But the women, who were shot, actually survived their injuries, the Polk county sheriff confirmed.

State departments of public health typically keep track of and release data on homicides, but in Iowa, this department doesn’t publicly share year-to-year statistics, since the numbers of Black women killed annually are relatively small and the identities of the deceased can be easily discovered.

Victims’ families, victim advocates and prosecutors, like Maybanks, say the increase in gun homicides of Black women is the devastating byproduct of years of disinvestment in Iowa’s Black communities, and the ease with which someone can get a gun in the state.

“When a 14-year-old kid can tell me it’s easy for them to get a gun, that’s scary to me. That’s the unfortunate reality of what’s happening here,” said Dedric Doolin, another of Marisa’s uncles, who is also the branch president of the Cedar Rapids NAACP. “Some of the violence is connected to health, job and housing issues – all of these things are intertwined.”

Calvetta Harris keeps a small notebook with her at all times. But the pages aren’t filled with notes-to-self or grocery shopping lists. Instead, they’re filled with the names and ages of Iowa’s murder victims.

“Rhonda Howard, 56,” she read from the notebook. “They did a welfare check and found that she had a lot of bodily trauma. They think it was domestic.

“Johnita Clemons in 2013. I bought her kids presents after she was killed. Their mother’s case is still unsolved,” she said.

“Connie Simmons,” she continued. “I knew her personally. It was a domestic violence thing a few blocks from me. I don’t think they ever found her head.”

woman in front of a mural

Harris started this list in 2013 when she founded Mothers Against Violence, a violence prevention and victim support non-profit, in memory of a longtime friend, who was shot and killed.

“In my community it’s become the norm for my kids to hear gunshots,” said the mother of four. “It makes me so sad. It ruins everyone’s life and changes families that day. No one wins. We all end up sad and angry.”

Her work has gotten busier in recent years amid the pandemic, and with the increased need, she’s become stretched thin.

Luana Nelson-Brown has had a similar experience. Through the Des Moines-based Iowa Coalition for Collective Change, she helps families of homicide victims with essential needs, such as transportation, guidance through the criminal justice system and day-to-day logistics like getting kids to daycare.

“We are all doing triple and double duty on other issues so we are exhausted,” Nelson-Brown said.

She and Harris are among a handful of Black Iowans in cities like Des Moines, Waterloo, Cedar Rapids and Davenport who are organizing to stop violence and put the racial and gender disparities of homicide at the center of the state’s public safety agenda.

“It gets frustrating when you speak out and help, and next week someone’s dying again,” Harris added. “We all need help. And we’re not getting it.”

Children standing around a snowcone machine, a woman adds ice to a cooler next to them.

The majority of gun deaths in Iowa are not homicides, but suicides, which claim more than 200 lives a year in the state, according to the CDC. Firearm homicides, in contrast, total a few dozen per year and in recent decades, Iowa’s murder rates have been below the national average. Given the rarity of homicides in Iowa compared with the rest of the nation, the increase in killings of Black women stands out.

“We tend to be disparately impacted by so many things. [Gun violence] is one that is indicative of how our communities have been harmed for decades,” said Dr Nafissa Egbuonye, the former public health director for Black Hawk county, home to the city of Waterloo.

The socioeconomic needs and public safety concerns that Black Iowans hold have been largely ignored by the state’s majority white and conservative legislature, families and advocates say. In addition the outsized numbers of Black homicide victims, in 2020, 2021, and 2022 the state had some of the nation’s highest disparities in incarceration, with Black Iowans making up 4% of the state’s population but a quarter of its prison population in 2021.

“All of the factors like poverty, unemployment, having a job where you can’t work from home, food deserts, housing shortage all of those things came to a head [in 2020],” Nelson-Brown added.

street scene of large buildings

“I think we’re seeing the result of a pandemic of racism and sexism combine with Covid to create something new,” she said.

Waterloo is one of the state’s biggest cities and also has one of its highest Black populations, at 17%, according to census data. There were 10 homicides in the county in 2020, according to the Iowa department of public safety’s website. Four of the victims were Black women, according to a Guardian analysis.

During her time in the department, Egbuonye said the community called on officials to create more programming for youth, improve job opportunities and invest more in Black communities overall. “We need to do right by the African American community, remove the barriers and plant safe spaces in our communities where violence is perpetuated.”

A family standing around outside at Dairy Queen

Two of the women killed in Waterloo were cousins: Tamica Allison, 42, and Andrea Rochelle Anderson, 41. They were shot on 10 February 2020 in the apartment Allison shared with her boyfriend, Matthew Buford. On 14 June, Buford was found guilty on two counts of first degree murder. Both of the women were mothers and had 12 children between them, according to Fatimah Calhoun, Anderson’s eldest daughter.

“My mother was a strong woman, that’s the first thing that everyone knows,” said Calhoun. “She was a light, she was a great teacher, role model. I wouldn’t be here today if I didn’t have her as a mother.”

Even before her mother’s murder, Calhoun had experienced the violence that Black women and girls face. In 2015, when she was in high school, Calhoun was shot in the leg while hanging out with friends. During these teenage years, a friend was also killed after she was shot in the head by a peer.

She says violence has only gotten worse in recent years and continues to affect her family. In May 2022, her older brother was shot – and survived – while at a lemonade sale the children in their family had set up.

Now, more than three years after her mother was killed, Calhoun, 23, is expecting her second child and is raising five siblings who are still minors. She hopes to adopt them but doesn’t have the money for an attorney. She says her lack of legal custody precluded her siblings from getting victim compensation money.

Left to right: Marisa Doolin, Italia Kelly with her siblings, and Rochelle Anderson.

Buford’s guilty verdict for killing her mother and Allison made Calhoun feel “happy that day”, she told the Guardian.

In the years since Marisa Doolin’s killing, Iowa’s gun laws have only loosened. While there are still age restrictions on gun and ammunition purchases and bans for people with felonies, in April 2021, Governor Kim Reynolds signed a law that allows anyone over 21 to buy or carry a handgun without a permit – known as constitutional or permitless carry.

“What gets me is: why are people’s rights to own guns more important than people’s lives?” Dedric Doolin said.

Marisa Doolin’s boyfriend, Larenzo Burnett, now 22, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and witness tampering, and was sentenced to five years in prison.

blurry view of two homes and a tree

Doolin was one of two Black women killed in Cedar Rapids in 2020. The other was Asia Taqara Grice, a pregnant 25-year-old who was shot to death on 1 May by her boyfriend. Grice’s boyfriend was sentenced to 50 years in prison last May.

The state’s loose gun laws are a point of ire for activists, who say that easy access to guns combined with a lack of investment in programs that can respond when people’s lives are disrupted by homicide have created a dire situation for Iowa’s most underserved communities.

“If this was happening to white women it would be a state of emergency, but that’s not happening because it’s our Black women,” said Lisa Ambrose, the founder, CEO and executive director of the non-profit Amani Community Services.

Lisa Ambrose runs Amani Community Services in Waterloo, Iowa.

In the summer of 2021, Black women across the south and midwest organized marches to raise awareness of the violence against Black women and girls that they had witnessed. There were demonstrations last year in Little Rock, Arkansas; Chicago; Atlanta and Des Moines.

One of the cases that inspired the Iowa protest was that of 10-year-old Breasia Terrell, who went missing in July 2020. Her body was found in the next year, though authorities believe she was killed shortly after she went missing, Michael Walton, the former Scott county attorney, told the Guardian.

Fifty-one-year-old Henry Dinkins, the father of one of Terrell’s siblings, was arrested and charged with her killing; he has pleaded not guilty. The trial began this month.

Man standing for a portrait inside his home

Terrell was one of two Black female homicide victims in Davenport in 2020. The other was 22-year-old Italia Kelly, who was shot in her torso while leaving a protest on 31 May. Kelly had joined hundreds of others to protest police violence and racism following the killing of George Floyd.

“Italia was such a wonderful person,” Sharon Kelly said of her daughter, the oldest of six. “She was everything to her siblings.”

The morning after she was killed, Italia’s father, Michael, was getting ready for his shift as a braille transcriber at Iowa’s Newton correctional facility, about 40 miles west of Des Moines, where he is incarcerated. An officer came into his cell and he was told to call Italia’s mother.

“At first it didn’t register. And once it registered, I just broke down,” he said.

Michael Kelly had to watch Italia’s funeral over Zoom because of Covid restrictions. On the three-year anniversary of Italia’s death, he bought some food and shared a meal and some laughs with friends in memory of his daughter.

Parker Belz was arrested and charged with Italia’s death and accepted a plea deal for a single charge of attempt to commit murder. The 22-year-old was sentenced to 25 years in prison and fined $150,000.

“With gun violence you’re not just taking that person, you’re destroying a whole family and that’s what people need to come to realize: you’re affecting a community,” Sharon Kelly said.

Michael said he didn’t think “you can ever say [you got] justice when someone is gone and the tragic way in which she died. I can live with it. But I don’t know if justice is a term I think anyone should use.”

Man speaking with young men at a basketball practice.

Since Italia’s killing, Sharon and her children have moved to Ohio, where her brother lives, to get away from the places that remind her of her daughter. “It was just the easiest thing to do. I couldn’t heal there; it was just too much,” she said.

Though Italia’s siblings still struggle with anxiety and nightmares, they have found a sense of peace in the small town they’ve settled in.

“Me and my kids have peace again and that’s everything. I never thought I would,” Sharon added. “ I still have moments where it hits me out of the blue. But I’m learning to put one foot in front of the other.”

Calvetta Harris, of Mothers Against Violence, reached out to the Kellys after Italia was killed and supported Sharon through her daughter’s funeral proceedings, which Sharon said “meant everything in the world”.

Since the increase in gun homicides of Black Iowans in 2020, Harris, Nelson-Brown of Iowa Coalition for Collective Change and Ambrose of Amani Community Cervices say the conditions that underlie gun violence among Black Iowans – including poverty and a lack of programs and services for youth – remain largely unchanged.

child plays with a basketball in front of a home

But they and others are making headway through recently implemented violence prevention programs in Cedar Rapids and Davenport, Waterloo and Des Moines, Nelson-Brown said.

“It’s sad that we have to keep saying these names and going to these vigils because they didn’t get to live their lives and it’s unnecessary and senseless,” said Harris, who recently began working as an outreach worker and violence interrupter with Creative Visions, the non-profit that runs Des Moines’ violence prevention initiative.

“But I say it because someone else can hear me and maybe they’ll join in the cause.”