The truths behind the myth of Chicago’s violence

09/02/2013 5:00 PM

09/03/2013 6:14 PM

A neatly typed letter arrived at the office the other day. It included a check made out to the National Rifle Association, on my behalf.

The reader, disgruntled by my call for reasonable gun control laws, thought it pertinent to take another lick at one of the right wing’s favorite whipping boys: Chicago. “If one thinks that gun control works,” he wrote, “I would ask them why Chicago, with some of the most restrictive gun laws in the nation, had over 500 homicides in 2012.”

This is a favorite theme on the right. Chicago is the murder capital of the nation, and also its gun control capital. I will disprove that first contention in a moment, but first let’s take the implied argument at face value: Gun control laws permit more murders to happen.

Correlation does not imply causation, but for a moment let’s enter the wingnut world where it does. In 2012, there were 507 homicides in Chicago. Ten years earlier, the statistic was 656. Ten years before that, it was 943. Holy cow! Chicago’s anti-gun laws must be working!

Not so fast. The murder rate has declined sharply across the country in the last 20 years. Chicago might still be at the top of the heap for murders. Indeed, 507 is a big number, the biggest of any city in the U.S. in 2012. But Chicago is a big place. The key is to take the number of murders, multiply by 100,000 and then divide by the population. That gives you the standard expression of the homicide rate: murders per 100,000.

How does Chicago stack up? Turns out it’s a dangerous place, but not even in the top 20 most deadly cities. Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn crunched preliminary FBI data on homicides, noting Chicago was safer than, among others places, Detroit, Philadelphia, Atlanta, New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Little Rock, Kansas City, Montgomery, Memphis and Richmond.

Peruse the list of the top 20 cities by homicide rate and you will see metropolises in Northern blue states and Southern red ones, on the East Coast and the West Coast and smack in the heartland — all with gun restrictions that vary with regional preference.

So why do conservatives love to portray Chicago as a wasteland of bloodshed? Simple. Chicago is President Obama’s hometown, long a political stronghold for Democratic politics.

This is not an argument that everything in Chicago is hunky-dory. What about August reports that with the opening of Chicago’s public schools, hundreds of city employees were necessary to escort students through dangerous parts of town? And what about all of those headlines from the summer, like 4th of July weekend, during which 72 people were shot and 12 killed? All true.

However, what citywide statistics don’t show is that over the last 20 years a great divide has opened up between Chicago neighborhoods in terms of safety, even as murders have dropped by half. Daniel Hertz, a masters student at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, used Chicago Police data to show that some marginal neighborhoods made stunning progress. Sadly, some neighborhoods, particularly on the South and West Sides, are more violent than they were in the 1990s.

Another way to put it is that violent crime, like income and wealth, is unevenly distributed in Chicago.

Do you really want to solve the violent crime problem? 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.

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.


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