Despite having some of the strictest gun laws in the United States, the city of Chicago is consistently one of the most violent in the nation. A person might therefore deduce that additional gun regulations are not the answer to the city's problems — but not Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. His proposal to ban the sale of all guns within city limits was struck down by a district court in January, so last week the Mayor countered with a proposal that would limit handgun purchases to one per month per person, and mandate the videotaping of each handgun purchase.
That might make sense if Chicago’s murders were actually being committed with guns illegally purchased in Chicago. According to the Guardian, most of the guns used in Chicago crimes are bought in suburbs or nearby states with less stringent gun laws. So Emanuel has yet to explain how videotaping sales would stem the overall tide of illegal guns in Chicago as opposed to simply lowering the number of illegal sales at locations in Chicago. Additionally, waffle-stomping on personal privacy doesn't seem to be of any concern. As Joe Moreno, who sits on Chicago’s City Council, said, "I think we need to err on the side of being stricter."
Why is Emanuel seemingly ignoring the staggering evidence in Chicago that increased regulations do little to curb firearms-related violence? Because gun violence isn't the crisis he's trying to avoid — losing the next election is.
Emanuel is up for re-election in February 2015, and his approval rating currently hovers around 29 percent. According to a poll by the Sun Times, if the mayoral election were held today, Emanuel would have a tough time beating Steve Bartman. This is due not only to the city's high crime rates, but also to Emanuel's approach to Chicago's schools. Since the mayor’s donors tend to think charter schools are terrific, he’s taken drastic measures against Chicago Public Schools (CPS) over the last several years.
Among his educational triumphs? Cutting $168 million from the CPS budget and closing 47 schools last year, then opening seven new charter schools earlier this year. Those charter schools funnel money away from public schools in areas that desperately need better public schools — and charters actually have a relatively poor track record, including higher-than-average expulsion rates. As a former teacher, I can tell you this: Expelling students may help the school, but it does not help the kids. And helping kids is exactly what would lower murder rates in Chicago.
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Chicago’s less-fortunate residents have taken to calling the town Chiraq, a macabre nod to the city’s dubious distinction as the murder capital of the United States for the past two years — to be fair, this was measured by sheer number of murders, not by murders per capita — and a continued epidemic of gun-related violence among Chicago’s youth.
Over the course of the last several years, the city’s leadership has taken on the murder rate with the fervor of Harry Caray at an open bar. At the beginning of this year, it paid off; according to the Chicago Police Department (CPD), there were 414 murders in 2013, compared to 507 in 2012. That was an unbelievable drop in numbers that didn't necessarily feel like it was reflected on the streets, but many in Chicago were eager to believe it. It looked like 2014 was going to be a banner year for Emanuel and Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy.
What’s indisputable is that violence is decreasing in Chicago; compared to the same time period (August to January) in 2012-13, this January showed a 44 percent drop in shootings involving students in Chicago’s public schools. According to McCarthy, this is due to a full-spectrum approach to law enforcement that involves some innovative police work. Derided by some as “hug a thug” programs — I actually find that phrase endearing, not pejorative — interventions by law enforcement in some parts of Chicago involve extensive community engagement and work to counter gang violence before it spirals out of control.
But there are those who counter that Chicago’s drop in murder rates in 2013 is about as believable as a prediction for a Northwestern Wildcats Final Four appearance. According to an extensive investigation by Chicago magazine, there’s damning evidence that the CPD brought the murder rate down by reclassifying some homicides as “noncriminal death investigations.” If the cases uncovered by Chicago were classified as murders (as the coroner ruled) instead of noncriminal deaths, there were at least 432 murders in Chicago last year, not the 414 reported by the CPD. And those are just the cases uncovered by the magazine.
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While the mayor calls for more video cameras, the answer to Chicago’s gun violence lies in measures already being taken by McCarthy and his cops. As a former teacher of a student body charitably described as “at risk,” I dealt with kids who thought they understood how the world — and gun violence — worked. They believed that if they could get their hands on the right firearm (or sell me one; “guaranteed clean,” as one of the students trying to sell it to me said), they could deal with anyone who showed them a less than acceptable level of respect. I had this conversation one day:
Me, a Guy Who Became a Teacher Because I Saw Dead Poets Society: So you’re going to start a fight with him after school?
Kid: Yeah, man. I am.
'Cuz he disrespected me.
You know if the cops bust you, you’re going back to juvie. And you’re almost 18.
Yeah. So what?
If you hit him hard enough, they’ll probably try you as an adult. And then you’ll end up going to real jail this time around. Is it worth it?
[thinking] Aw, man. I didn’t think about that.
What I (mostly accidentally) did in that classroom is exactly what after-school programs and programs like “hug a thug” do. They help break the cycle of violence. They help kids think about the consequences. Videotaping gun sales does not.
But after-school programs and better community policing aren’t the kinds of things that open the checkbooks of wealthy donors. Whether Emanuel’s misguided gun-control initiative is the result of a deep-seated desire to help the people of Chicago, a calculated ploy to bump his poll numbers, or a little of both, it’s just a gesture. A gesture that plays well in the press and allows folks who live far from where the gun violence is worst to feel a little better about things.
Follow Gary Owen on Twitter: @ElSnarkistani
Photo via Flickr