The following post was written by Heidi Redlitz, a San Diego-based blogger who is interested in how gun laws affect crime rates in major US cities. Politics, economics and social behavior all have an impact on crime rates, and Chicago is just one example of how these factors can affect urban areas. 

By Heidi Redlitz

Gun-related violence in Chicago highlights America’s polarized feelings toward gun ownership. The NRA’s been strong-arming public health agencies to bar federally funded research studies related to gun use. Recent surveys have pointed to increased gun sales and decreased homicide rates. And despite promises by the Obama administration to create stricter gun regulations in the last year, there’s been a huge backlash from gun ownership advocates in addition to increased gun sales.

The stats are confusing, misleading, and very useful to either side. It’s the right to bear arms vs. the right to be protected from criminals bearing arms. And in the midst of all this political infighting is the very real and brutal gang warfare on the streets of Chicago.

With the reality of gun use in the U.S. and its very horrific effects in the wrong hands, it doesn’t matter what side of the debate you’re on. The point is that guns, and the ramifications that come with them, exist—and with very devastating effects.

In 2012, Chicago police seized more than 7,400 guns—about three times more than New York officers. That same year, Chicago also surpassed New York, a city three times its population, in registered homicides. Why such a high number of homicide rates? Gang violence, estimates Chicago police. Of 2012’s 500 homicides (up from 431 from 2011), about 80 percent were gang-related.

Explaining The Violence

Amid an overall decrease in gun crimes in the US, gang activity in Chicago is still thriving for several reasons. Current high unemployment rates, under-resourced school districts, and the foreclosure crisis has riddled the city with dwindling job prospects and safe havens for struggling families. And it goes back even further than that. In the early 2000s, city officials demolished its inner-city housing project housing to break up the reign of gangs that lived there. Even though this was done to curb violence, the exact opposite happened. Warring gangs that had limited reach were now spread out all over the city, often landing in rival gang territory. The consequences for Chicago were deadly.

The area around Harper High School, in the Englewood neighborhood of South Chicago, is an example of the havoc wreaked by gang displacement. (The school had 27 gun-related incidents in one academic year.) Harper’s attendance area, only a couple square miles, has more than 15 active gangs. Kids walking back and forth to school are often caught in the crossfire. The newcomers might not control an entire block, and they may not even be able to pinpoint anyone in charge. The man in charge is the man who wields a gun. That includes students too young to even drive.

“It’s just a war zone. People like us, we’re so close to each other, it doesn’t make no sense. Our opposition is right down the street,” said Jordan, a sophomore at Harper high school. And when guns are in the hands of kids, they find unlimited reasons to pull their guns. Ask the police, school officials, or students at Harper High the reasons behind gang warfare and shootings, and they’ll say it’s over anything: girls, money, a lost fight. Or sometimes nothing at all.

Getting A Gun

Chris (an alias) is another young gang member in Chicago’s South Side. He can get his hands on a gun in less time than it takes to order pizza. “I will make a call and say I need a gun. I will ride down the street on my bike and get it—five minutes,” he said. Chris knows men whose business revolves around the necessity of guns for gang warfare. These “gun guys” (or “straw purchasers,” as cops call them) make a full-time job out of purchasing guns from suburban stores and selling them illegally to criminals.

Since they have clean records, it’s easy for them to buy guns for those banned from gun purchasing because of criminal records.

The extent (and profit) of sales for “gun guys” using out-of-state sources has most recently been brought to light by the conviction of David Lewisbey and Levaine Lanskey. The two were charged with illegally selling 43 firearms (unknowingly to a government informant) in barely 24 hours, pocketing $37,300. At least 23 of the confiscated guns have been traced to Indiana; 13 have been linked to a single Indiana firearms dealer.

No City Is An Island

Easy access to guns in nearby areas illustrates just how difficult it is for Chicago authorities to crack down on the illegal gun trade. According to a University of Chicago Crime Lab analysis, around 40 percent of guns recovered by police in Chicago come from gun stores in Chicago suburbs or in Indiana.

Tight Illinois gun laws and less restrictive laws in Indiana make the neighboring state the No. 1 source of out-of-state guns used in crimes in Cook County. Gun shows are common in Indiana, and private gun sales don’t require a waiting period, background checks, or a record of the transaction. Less restrictive laws in, say, Indiana and Illinois suburbs means buyers don’t have to go far to get guns legally. It also means that police can’t establish strict violations.

“We’re only as strong as the weakest gun law in surrounding states,” said David Spielfogel, senior adviser to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Is There A Solution?

Chicago’s gun woes are a monster to overcome. “Even with the best policing in the world, without laws that help keep illegal guns off the

streets and laws that provide real punishment for the dangerous criminals who carry them, we’ll continue to face an uphill battle,” said Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy. Otherwise, risk of getting caught by police is better than risk of getting caught unarmed in the territory of a rival gang member.

On the contrary, a 2013 reported released by Northwestern’ School of Law’s Bluhm Legal Clinic shows that focused policing efforts, like community-based programs in high-risk areas, is more effective in reducing gun violence than mandatory minimum sentences. Communities with police intervention tactics and programs to deter gang violence reduced gun violence by 68 percent in one year. Considering Chicago authorities have been fighting a decades-long battle against city crime and gun-related violence, that’s a startling and very encouraging statistic.

What can we take away from this report? Tighter restrictions and harsher penalties are a start, but authorities should really be looking at the dynamics of high-risk neighborhoods for a solution. Criminals will always find a way to get their hands on illegal guns. A harsh penalty for getting caught could intimidate some, but the best deterrent is to lessen neighborhoods’ reliance on gang involvement. Policing efforts need to be integrated into community-based enforcement and anti-gang programs so

that the most vulnerable—kids looking to get home without getting shot—don’t have to resort to guns as their only source of protection.

“We’re at a breakthrough point, a tipping point, where could turn this thing in a direction this city has never seen,” McCarthy said.

Let’s hope that’s true.