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Chicago and guns: Correcting the myth

| Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Imagine all 50 states and some major cities are on a boat, and the boat is sinking. In fact, it’s riddled with holes. Someone has the bright idea to divvy up the holes and assign them, and everyone quickly gets to work. Some states do what they can to fix their ruptures, others do nothing and some stand over their holes thinking deeply and occasionally praying. Illinois and Chicago fix their hole the best they can, step back to admire their handiwork and are shocked to discover they are still up to their ankles in water. They look east to Indiana and see that not only has Indiana not fixed its hole, but it has actually taken a sledgehammer to it, widening the gap more and more. The west is not much better, as Wisconsin has decided to violently stomp on its hole, making it bigger and bigger. As the states come back together to figure out a new plan, they point to Chicago and Illinois as the perfect example of why patching your hole won’t stop the boat from sinking.

Using Illinois, specifically Chicago, as a counterexample to gun control has been popular for years. After 58 people died in the Las Vegas shooting, Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “I think if you look to Chicago, where you had over 4,000 victims of gun-related crimes last year, they have the strictest gun laws in the country. That certainly hasn’t helped there.” In 2015 Chris Christie noted, “… in many of the places around this country where they have the toughest gun laws, they have the highest violent crime rates. Violence in America that’s happened on our streets in our cities, like Chicago, up 19%, the murder rate.” Chicago is also one of President Donald Trump’s favorite punching bags, and he claimed in the 2016 presidential debate, “In Chicago, which has the toughest gun laws in the United States, probably you could say by far, they have more gun violence than any other city.”

To briefly clear up some misconceptions: Chicago does not have the strictest gun laws in the country — that honor goes to California — and the city is nowhere near the most gun-violent in America. In fact, according to a five-year study from 2010 to 2015, Chicago is ranked 18th in terms of gun-related homicides, with 16.4 homicides per 100,000 residents, while New Orleans sits at number one, with 46.9. Chicago is ranked 12th out of 68 in terms of nonfatal shootings with 88.9 per 100,000 residents, and St. Louis is first with 659.7.

None of this is to say that Chicago does not have a gun violence problem. While it is far from the most violent city in America, it is still ranked too high on that list given its gun control measures, and this is why politicians have pointed to it as the prime example of why gun control does not work. Is this the right takeaway? Illinois is bordered by two states with weak gun laws. The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence gave Illinois a B+ rating for its gun laws and gave Wisconsin and Indiana a C- and D- respectively. When someone with a gun crosses from a state with weak gun laws to one with strong gun control, the state line doesn’t make the gun they carry magically disappear. It is therefore no surprise that Illinois has a lot of guns despite having strict gun laws since its neighbors don’t even require their citizens to acquire licenses or permits before purchasing a gun.

Most of Chicago’s guns can be traced out of state. In 2015, it was found that more than 60% of guns used in gang-related crimes in Chicago and 31.6% used in non-gang-related crimes were bought in other states. Two years ago, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives found that more than half of all traceable firearms recovered in Illinois came from out of state, compared to the more than 80% of guns recovered in Indiana that came from within Indiana. Quite the sledgehammer.

Compare this data to states with strict gun laws that neighbor states with equally as strict gun control. New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey all have gun control ratings of A- or higher, and they are all clustered in the same geographical area. In terms of gun deaths per 100,000 people, out of all 50 states they are ranked 48th, 49th, 46th and 45th respectively. It appears that when states are not surrounded by weak gun laws, their gun control measures are allowed to work.

Many Notre Dame students claim Chicago as their hometown (often falsely, but I’m picking my battles today), yet they often fall victim to this cult of misinformation that surrounds the city. The fact that Chicago suffers from gun violence does not mean its gun control laws are failing, but it has certainly been precluded from reaping the benefits of its safety measures by its neighbors (of course, the city’s entrenched structural issues of segregation and poverty do not help — a column for another time). It’s time to stop pretending that Chicago exists in its own bubble completely unaffected by its surroundings. When we do that, we miss important context, and it makes it seem as though action against gun violence is fruitless when it’s not. We can’t keep getting tricked into believing nothing can be done. After all, we’re all on the same boat, and that boat is sinking.

Mary Szromba is a senior majoring in philosophy and political science, and she’s never been wrong about anything in her entire life. Questions, comments and anonymous love letters can be directed to [email protected] or @_murrrrrr on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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