Our Opinion: Look deeper than the headlines


The news out of Chicago following the Fourth of July holiday was horrendous: More than 75 people were shot, resulting in the deaths of more than a dozen men, women and children. And just this past weekend, 40 people were shot, leaving four dead, including an 11-year-old girl who was killed by a stray bullet during a sleepover at a friend's house. Since July 7, there have been 200 homicides in Chicago, the majority of them by firearm.

But what is more amazing than this ongoing carnage, is the fact that crime is actually going down in Chicago.

In 2012, Chicago had more than 500 homicides, 87 percent of which were gun-related. In 2013 there were 421 homicides, 372 by firearm, the fewest since 1965. Ten years earlier, the statistic was 656. Ten years before that, it was 943.

And while places such as New York City and Los Angeles, with three times the population of Chicago, have a comparable number of homicides, Chicago didn't even crack the Top 20 list of the most dangerous cities in America. Chicago was safer than, among others places, Detroit, Philadelphia, Atlanta, New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Little Rock, Kansas City, Montgomery, Memphis and Richmond.

This means that many neighborhoods in Chicago are as safe as can reasonably be expected, while walking down the street in other neighborhoods is more dangerous than walking down a street in Afghanistan.

"Another way to put it is that violent crime, like income and wealth, is unevenly distributed in Chicago," writes Mary Sanchez for the Kansas City Star.

Andrew Papachristos, a Yale sociologist, told Chicago Mag that 70 percent of all non-fatal shootings occur in networks comprising less than 6 percent of Chicago's total population. The homicide rate in Chicago from 2006-2012 was 1.62 per 100,000 for whites, 28.72 for Hispanics, and 112.83 for blacks. For all males, it's 44.68 per 100,000; 239.77 for black males; and for black males ages from 18 to 34 it's 599.65.

Chicago has some of the most restrictive gun control laws in the nation, a fact the gun lobby gleefully points to whenever there is a debate about unbridled access to firearms in the United States. Their logic follows that if gun control doesn't work in Chicago, why would it work anywhere else?

"Do you really want to solve the violent crime problem?" asks Sanchez. "Start by recognizing that guns travel. They go unimpeded from jurisdictions where they are easily gotten to places where they are not. Violence stays put."

"Although Chicago has historically had strict gun laws, laws in the surrounding parts of Illinois were much laxer -- enabling middlemen to supply the criminals in Chicago with guns they purchased elsewhere," writes Zach Beauchamp, writing for Think Progress. "Forty three percent of the guns seized by law enforcement in Chicago were originally purchased in other parts of Illinois. And even if the state had stricter gun laws, Illinois is not an island either. The remaining fifty seven percent of Chicago guns all came from out of state, most significantly from nearby Indiana and distant Mississippi -- neither of which are known for their strict gun laws."

According to the New York Times, since 2008, more than 1,300 of the guns confiscated in Chicago, were bought from just one store, Chuck's Gun Shop, in Riverdale, Ill.

In "Aiming for Evidence-Based Gun Policy," Philip J. Cook and Jens Ludwig note the stock of guns in America probably matters less than the flow. They note that regulation would be more effective if it makes it harder for each new cohort of criminally active young people to acquire guns.

"Most of our country's guns are in the hands of relatively low-risk people and are likely to remain there (theft notwithstanding) for many years. The large majority of gun crimes are committed by a small group of criminally active people whose criminal ‘careers' are typically fairly short in duration."

Cook and Ludwig note that if the United States really wants to keep firearms out of the hands of criminals, there are a number of things that can be done.

They include: Improving the gun-registration system so that guns confiscated by the police can be more reliably traced to their owners; increasing the use in police investigations of the available technology to analyze the ballistic "fingerprints" on shell casings; launching intensive police patrol directed against illicit gun carrying in high-violence neighborhoods; offering rewards for information leading to the arrest of people carrying or possessing a gun illegally; and instituting a gun emphasis policy in investigations and prosecutions of violent crimes.

But that's not enough, they contend.

"Targeted police patrols against illegal gun carrying appear more promising than extending prison sentences for those who use or carry guns illegally."

But Aaron M. Renn, writing for New Geography, notes that Chicago's police department is about 1,000 officers short of authorized strength and is facing a large number of looming retirements while few new recruits are brought in due to budget constraints.

Crime in Chicago is also exacerbated by politics as usual in that city, contends Renn.

"Rahm Emanuel, a fan of centralized control, has been heavily involved in driving major decisions like disbanding the anti-gang strike forces. It's not clear whether police decisions have been driven by purely professional crime fighting concerns or, as in likely given the city's culture, political considerations."

You can also chalk up the homicide rate in Chicago to the success of local and federal officials who have had great success taking out the leadership of many of the city's gangs, contends Renn.

"The result has been significant gang fragmentation and a lack of hierarchical control over the rank and file that some have blamed for contributing to the violence epidemic," writes Renn.

But, as Sanchez notes, limiting access to guns doesn't address the roots of the problem.

"Easy access to guns is just the icing. It's the explosive fuse atop a long stack of community woes. There's a 20th-century problem we haven't solved: The inequality between races, between city and suburb, between ghetto and the leafier urban districts that Americans are falling in love with again. Every shooting in Chicago should remind us that we have failed."

Until we are willing to seriously address inequality, poverty, the drug culture, mental health and unemployment the people who are resorting to gun violence -- and this is not only the youth of Chicago, but also the angry white men who are the main culprits who commit mass shootings -- America will continue to have its own blood on its hands.

While we don't agree with the simplistic canard that "Guns don't kill people ..." we recognize that in a healthy society, one with productive employment for all demographics and one that heads off at the pass mental health crises, people have less reason to resort to firearms to settle their differences or to resolve disputes. Keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, if the gun lobby ever allowed common sense gun measures to be instituted, would only limit the lethality of crime and not make us healthier. While limiting access to guns is a worthwhile goal, it shouldn't be the end point.


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