Monday’s Supreme Court ruling upholding a ban on stand-in gun buyers was greeted by gun control advocates as both a legal and political victory over the National Rifle Association in the movement toward sane public policy on gun ownership. But while it may seem like one giant leap for humankind, it is but a small step for Chicago, which is struggling to find solutions to the relentless problem of gun violence.
In the war of words that has become the national discourse on gun control, Illinois has become a battleground state. The focus of a national spotlight. And breaking news. Headline: Chicago murder and gun seizure numbers soar. Headline: Highly financed gun control advocate Robin Kelly wins Democratic Congressional victory. Headline: NRA-backed concealed carry measure becomes law. Headline: President Obama urges innovative alternative solutions to gun violence at Chicago high school.
Emerging from the headlines is confirmation that fixing the problem of gun violence will require a holistic approach, one that adopts multiple strategies and requires the engagement of multiple stakeholders. In fact, we find ourselves now at the intersection of the three essential paths to the reduction of gun violence — policy, policing and politics.
The Supreme Court ruling on so-called “straw purchases” is a significant victory. The law under review in the case — co-sponsored in the U.S. Senate last year by Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, Sen. Mark Kirk and on the House side by Chicago Congressman Bobby Rush, whose 29-year-old son, Huey, was shot to death in 1999 — is designed to cut down on trafficking by preventing people from buying guns for others, especially those who can’t because of a criminal background.
Data compiled by the Chicago Police Department, and analyzed by the New York Times last year, shows more than half of the roughly 50,000 guns recovered by Chicago police between 2001 and March 2012 came from outside Illinois. More than 15,000 came from just outside the city in Cook County and in neighboring towns that permit gun stores.
Tony Hutchinson, a gun dealer in downstate Champaign for 10 years, says it’s a problem. “I can’t speak for everybody, but I know it goes on,” he told me, recalling how he refused sales when he sensed the guns were destined for unauthorized users. “Maybe some gun dealers don’t have a conscience. They have a dollar sign. But I look at it different.”
That is because Hutchinson knows what officials like Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy and lawmakers like Durbin and Kirk and Rush know: oftentimes, the weapons wind up in the hands of youthful offenders, such as the ones who admitted last year to killing 15-year-old Chicagoan Hadiya Pendleton, just one week after the honor student performed in the Presidential Inaugural Parade. The federal gun control bill upheld by the ruling is named in her honor.
Still, preventing straw purchases only addresses part of the problem.
Ambitious proposals advanced by President Obama in last year’s State of the Union address and echoed in his remarks delivered in Chicago shortly after that, reflect what many have been urging.
First, there is the broad view. The contextual view. Like that of Jens Ludwig, McCormick Foundation Professor at the University of Chicago and director of the Crime Lab there, where urban gun violence is a focus of research. “We know from looking at the detailed case study data in Chicago and other cities that a lot of this stuff stems from relatively minor provocation that escalates into a tragedy,” Ludwig said, “because ‘A’ a kid has a gun ready at hand, and ‘B’ because the kid acts automatically or impulsively.”
Then, there is the view from ground level, the focused view, the keen-eyed view down the street, around corners, through tinted glass. The view fixed by crime scenes where kids have acted “automatically or impulsively” — and with high-capacity magazines.
“I’m afraid to go outside. I don’t let my grandkids go outside,” says Donna, of Chatham Park, whose last name is withheld for fear of her family’s safety. “I had my grandkids out in front of the house about three weeks ago, letting them ride the bikes because they all got new bikes, and two cars on my street are chasing each other shooting.
“If no one is getting shot, then someone is getting shot at.”
It’s a daily occurrence, she says. Like the gang-related shooting in May that killed Chicago Public School teacher Betty Howard.
That shooting was one of the many recent tragedies prompting the latest outpouring of community outrage and determination — a mass rally led last Friday by Father Michael Pfleger, activist pastor at St. Sabina Catholic Church.
— Chicago Urban League (@ChiUrbanLeague) June 14, 2014
The “Demand Peace in the Streets” rally drew hundreds of community residents from the shelter of homes and apartments who broke their silence. If there is any encouragement to be taken from this event for people like Donna, it is the sound of people speaking out, breaking the no-snitch street code, one voice at a time.
“You have one on this block, two on that block and it’s starting to catch on, you know because of the rally,” she said. “People are starting to help police catch these kids.”
Still, a public policy of mass incarceration is not the answer. Ironically, it might have intensified the problem. Gang leaders have been put in prison and the gangs, like decapitated fowl, are flailing. “So now these young boys are on their own,” Donna said. “Most of these boys’ parents were gang leaders. I know a couple of them whose fathers are locked up. So now the kids are out here wild.”
School closings also have contributed to the problem. Donna has seen rival gangs, suddenly forced to share space, now fighting to control turf. The solution, then, is to take away the gun, but also work on adjusting the attitude, that automatic or impulsive tendency Professor Ludwig mentions. “I think our scientific understanding of human behavior has advanced a lot since the ‘70s,” Ludwig noted, pointing to the earlier period of conservative Reagan Era skepticism about social intervention programs. He points to the success of University of Chicago-assisted initiatives like Becoming A Man, a school-based program of social skills building and sports-oriented conflict resolution.
Success of such early intervention now has been documented. Researchers at the Crime Lab report that some 2,700 kids who have participated in the program have significantly lower rates of violent offenses and higher rates of school performance and predicted graduation. “I think the B.A.M. intervention builds on a lot of the kind of basic science findings that we’ve had over the last several decades about how to change human behavior,” Ludwig notes.
While we wait for the multifaceted process — stricter gun policies, political courage, social intervention — to have more significant and widespread effect, the hopes of an increasingly vigilant community are put on hold.
“This is what we have,” notes Donna, reflecting on the dramatic increase in police patrols in her neighborhood. On foot, on bikes, in marked and unmarked cars and SUVs. Blue lights flashing everywhere, it seems. While people inside their homes avoid sitting in living rooms that face the street. “This is the way we have to live.”
Christopher Benson is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.