Chicago's Gun Violence Has a Role in the National Gun Debate

PHOTO: Cleopatra Pendelton cries as she talks with Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy before a news conference seeking help from the public in solving the murder of Pendeltons daughter Hadiya Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013, in Chicago.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP Photo

It took the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, to prompt lawmakers to call for stricter gun legislation. But the reality is that in a city like Chicago, where 515 murders took place last year and more than 100 shooting incidents have occurred since January 1, gun violence is an ongoing issue and it has been for years. Only, these shootings have become so common that they don't make national headlines.

"We lost a classroom full of children in Connecticut which sparked national outrage that needs to be translated into action, but in Chicago, we sometimes lose a dozen or more young people every weekend," Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Illinois), who serves the Chicago area, said in a statement. "Too many bullets and too many guns are killing the next generation and we have got to make it stop."

Gutierrez, like many others, believe that any debate about gun violence shouldn't just take into account mass shootings that make headline news. It should also consider the chronic gun violence that takes place on a daily basis across the U.S.

In Chicago's case, many of the victims are young minorities growing up in poor, gang-ridden neighborhoods on the south and west side of the city.

Just earlier this week a 15-year-old girl who performed at President Barack Obama's recent inauguration was gunned down, The Washington Post reported.

The teen, Hadiya Pendleton, was hanging out in a park with about a dozen other young people when she was shot. Two other victims were reportedly wounded. By all accounts she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Reports indicate that the gunman was not even aiming at her.

And Pendleton is just the latest example. Chicago police officer Ron Holt lost his son, Blair, to gun violence in the spring of 2007. The 16-year-old was shot and killed while riding a bus after school.

Holt now works with young people in the community, particularly minorities at an increased risk of engaging in dangerous behavior, to encourage them to focus on their education instead of turning to violence.

"I explain to them that if they continue to ascribe to this diabolical idea of resolving conflict with firearms they're depleting the most precious natural resource in the community, and that is them," Holt said.

What's clear is that the root of the gun problem is not just the guns. There are several factors that play a role, many of which are rarely discussed. For example, for minority youth living in urban communities characterized by poverty, violence, particularly gun violence, tends to be chronic. And the groups largely impacted tend to be African American and Hispanic.

A lot of that has to do with acculturation, according to Rahsmia Zatar, executive director of Strong Youth, a gang prevention and intervention organization. There is a sense that it's difficult to move beyond one's cultural sphere.

As a result, minorities often tend to gravitate toward other young minorities in similar situations, and turn to violence to gain a sense of control, however false it really is.

"It's easy to fall victim to feeling a sense of empowerment through violence," Zatar said. "They feel they have limited opportunities and they don't have a sense of 'I can achieve,' [or] that there is something here for me that's better."

According to the 2011 American Community Survey by the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 30 percent of Chicago's African-American population and nearly 27 percent of Hispanics live below the poverty line. Perhaps more importantly, blacks and whites remain largely segregated, with African-Americans making up the vast majority of neighborhoods in the south, and whites comprising most of the north. Latinos are somewhat more mixed, often living in "buffer" communities between blacks and whites, which could exacerbate the pressure to conform to two cultures, neither of which is entirely comfortable.

These various enclaves also suffer from a distinct gang problem. Chicago Police Commissioner Garry McCarthy told Reuters the city is plagued by the breakup of larger more established gangs into new factions that are fighting over everything from turf to money.

Then there's the city's illicit gun issue, which is bigger than New York's or Los Angeles' despite strict laws to limit weapons. Gun shops are actually outlawed in Chicago, as are assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Handguns were even banned until 2010.

Still, in a place like Chicago it's handguns doing the most damage. According to statistics from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, most of the guns they recovered in Illinois were pistols, followed by revolvers and rifles. Machine guns come in a distant sixth.

Why so many guns? Gun laws in neighboring communities are not as strict, and firearms make their way into the city. According to a recent article by The New York Times, officials "seized 7,400 guns [in Chicago] in crimes or unpermitted uses last year (compared with 3,285 in New York City), and have confiscated 574 guns just since Jan. 1 — 124 of them last week alone."

And while Chicago residents are required to report the loss or theft of a handgun, that same law does not apply to all of Illinois, so a stolen firearm could easily make its way into Chicago without the owner ever reporting it missing.

The dynamics created in poor minority communities like those in Chicago combined with the sheer number of guns that make their way into such a city bear out in the overall statistics.

According to the Bureau of Justice's National Crime Victimization Survey, African Americans were disproportionately represented among homicide victims and offenders between 1980 and 2008. They were six times more likely than whites to be homicide victims and seven times more likely than whites to commit homicides.

Latinos don't fare much better. According to the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Hispanic advocacy organization, "Today in America, every three hours a young person is killed by firearm violence. Every 14 hours, that teen or child is Latino."

Young Latinos are especially likely to be impacted by gang violence in places like Chicago. Nationally, Hispanics are also more likely than non-Hispanics to be victims of violent crimes committed by gang members.

The impact of guns on the Latino community may explain why they're inclined to favor increased gun control. According to the Pew Research Center, while 57 percent of whites think it's more important to protect the rights of Americans to own guns than to protect gun ownership, only 29 percent of Latinos feel the same way.

Holt would certainly like to see something change. Several days after his son was killed, he received a voicemail. It was then-Senator Barack Obama. The young lawmaker had called Holt to express his condolences and to promise that if there was anything he could do in the future to help curb gun violence, he was prepared to do it. The two never spoke on the phone, but Holt remembers the message. "I have been approached and talked with a lot of African-Americans who find that quite the oxymoronic oddity that President Obama would now address the issue of gun violence in America holistically after the Newtown tragedy," he said. "He spoke about that and the shooting incident in Tucson, Arizona, and the shooting in Aurora, and Trayvon Martin. We as an African-American community had really implored the president to address this matter a long time before Newtown, before Tucson."

But aside from introducing new legislation, Holt and others say community outreach, particularly to young minority males, is key.

"There are environmental, economic and educational impacts that should be put into place on a consistent basis and really administered from the community-based, faith-based and parental-based levels," Holt said.

Holt also believes peer-to-peer interaction is often effective. When young people see friends or community members they respect on a healthy path, they're sometimes more likely to pay attention to that person than to a parent.

Patricia Foxen, deputy director of research with the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Latino advocacy organization, agrees that the issue is holistic.

"It's a community issue," she said. "Schools are a key place [for positive outreach] because that's where kids are and you have a captive audience where you can really nurture healthy behaviors."

The reality is that there is very little real data on how to curb gun violence among minorities, but without seriously looking at cities like Chicago when having that larger gun debate, this will be difficult to change.

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