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Who Can—And Who Can’t—Solve Chicago’s Murder Problem

Who Can—And Who Can’t—Solve Chicago’s Murder Problem

Photo credit: Maj Toure (left) photo by Damian Strohmeyer | Rahm Emanuel (right) photo by Terrence AntonioJames/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

With 762 reported homicides—a 57 percent increase from the previous year—Chicago hit a grim milestone in 2016. In fact, last year’s total was the highest the city has recorded in more than two decades. 

Unsurprisingly, 2016 ended as it began—violently, with five homicides and more than 30 people injured in shootings across the city during the weekend surrounding New Year’s Day. The gang violence that has scarred so many neighborhoods and taken far too many lives is expected to continue unabated in 2017, thanks in part to the anti-gun policies and philosophies pushed by elected officials in the Windy City, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel. As his city’s murder has spiraled out of control, Emanuel has cast blame on gun laws in other states and has called for more federal gun control legislation. For Emanuel, like the rest of the anti-gun crowd, it’s always the next gun control law that’s going to make a difference. 

Some voices, however, are starting to acknowledge that the problem isn’t the guns themselves, but who has them and for what reason. Over the New Year’s weekend, for example, Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson acknowledged more than 90 percent of those shot in the city had criminal records, known ties to gangs, or were on the police department’s “strategic subjects list”—a listing of about 1,500 individuals who’ve been deemed to be at high risk of being involved in violence, either as a perpetrator or a victim. 

In other words, these murders aren’t being committed by law-abiding gun owners. So why do so many politicians in Chicago continue to act like it’s the concealed-carry permit holders and the legal gun owners who are to blame? More importantly, what can be done to turn the tide of violence in so many Chicago communities? For Emanuel, like the rest of the anti-gun crowd, it’s always the next gun control law that’s going to make a difference.

It’s hard to know what really lurks in the hearts and minds of our elected officials, so maybe some of those Chicago politicians truly believe that they can ban their way to safety—that they can so tightly regulate legal gun ownership as to somehow make it impossible for criminals to access a firearm. I suspect that some of the more cynical politicians know their anti-gun efforts won’t do much to reduce violent crime, but they don’t have any better ideas and they need to “do something.” 

There are better ways to “do something,” though, and they’re already being put into practice around the country. Maj Toure, the founder of Black Guns Matter, took his teaching and his activism to Chicago in the fall of 2016. Dozens of residents attended, learning about basic gun safety and Illinois’ gun laws. There were also pointed discussions on interrupting violence, resolving conflict, and how to settle beefs without resorting to pulling a gun. 

It may sound like a program like this is too simple to accomplish much, but actually it’s programs like Black Guns Matter that will provide the foundation of something desperately needed in Chicago—a responsible gun culture. The city could do its part by removing the ridiculous zoning restrictions that prohibit gun stores and ranges from operating inside city limits. JROTC air rifle programs, banned from Chicago public schools since 1999, could be allowed to return—a move that would provide high schoolers with marksmanship skills and the discipline and responsibility that comes with shooting. Imagine if young men in Chicago who were interested in guns had someone other than a gangbanger to mentor them. That sounds like some actual “gunsense,” doesn’t it? Imagine if young men in Chicago who were interested in guns had someone other than a gangbanger to mentor them.

Cultural shifts like this would help, but there needs to be another shift as well—and it’s one that may be even more difficult to implement. The bonds of trust between law enforcement and high-crime communities in Chicago have been battered, and in some cases shattered, over the last few years. These are two groups that must work together in order to drive down the shootings, robberies and assaults that plague Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods. The residents of these neighborhoods need to be able to trust that the police are looking out for them, that they can be trusted, and that they are there to help. Police and prosecutors, in turn, need to be able to rely on the community to provide eyewitness testimony and to help solve cases that take violent offenders off the streets, as well as to maintain a culture that doesn’t tolerate lawlessness. When these communities are at odds with each other, crimes don’t get solved (the clearance rate for Chicago homicides in 2016 was around 20 percent). Consequently, criminals don’t get punished—and since this lack of accountability gives lawbreakers the idea that they can get away with their criminal activity, they tend to commit more crimes. It’s a vicious cycle, but it can be interrupted if improving these relationships is a genuine priority—not just for city officials, but for citizens as well.

Chicago residents shouldn’t simply accept the rising tide of violence as the “new normal.” Nor should they resign themselves to another round of ineffective and rights-infringing gun control laws in the name of “doing something.” 

If Chicago leaders want to get serious about fighting violent crime, they need to crack down on the most violent residents. The city needs to recognize that right now in Chicago, guns have become taboo objects coveted by criminals and those who want street cred. The city needs to start actively promoting a culture of law-abiding, legal and responsible gun ownership instead. The residents of the hardest-hit communities and the law enforcement officers sworn to serve and protect them need to find common ground in dealing with those gangbangers who are transforming peaceful neighborhoods into war zones. 

It won’t be easy. But unlike yet another piece of legislation aimed at legal gun owners, it will actually make Chicago safer.