By Peter Slevin
The Washington Post
— CHICAGO — Flags flew at half-staff all across the winter-draped city this week to honor the dead in Newtown, Conn. The massacre was unspeakable, and yet Chicago counts far more murder victims every month — many of them young people — than died in the carnage in Connecticut.
Their deaths usually go unmarked.
Since Jan. 1, Chicago police have recorded 2,364 shooting incidents and 487 homicides, 87 percent of them gun-related. Shootings have increased 12 percent this year and murders are up 19 percent.
Young people are often targets. In the school year that ended in June, 319 Chicago public school students were shot, 24 of them fatally. The total does not include school-age children who had dropped out or were enrolled elsewhere.
In the wake of the Newtown school shootings, as the nation talks anew of guns and the laws that regulate them, President Obama's adopted home town of Chicago is struggling to retake its most violent neighborhoods from the gunmen who shoot with impunity.
A Chicago Tribune editorial Thursday said the national gun debate must carry beyond mass shootings "to focus on cities such as Chicago, which is nearing 500 homicides for the year. It has to focus on why the United States has the highest rate of gun ownership of any industrialized nation and the highest rate of violent crime."
Obama, a former community organizer and Illinois state senator on the city's South Side, noted the persistence of urban violence last week when he cited "a street corner in Chicago" when listing prominent shooting episodes that included Sandy Hook Elementary, a Colorado movie theater and a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.
He also spoke about gun violence and its costs in 2007 at a South Side church. "Our playgrounds have become battlegrounds," he said. "Our streets have become cemeteries. Our schools have become places to mourn the ones we've lost."
Five years later, one of the gravest challenges faced by a city now run by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a Democrat, and Obama's former White House chief of staff, is how to stop the guns from blazing. Police and social workers alike are asking why, exactly, Chicago's murder rate has remained so high.
Murder rates in Chicago and New York were similar in the 1990s. Even though killings in both cities dropped substantially, Chicago's current rate is three times higher than New York's, said Jens Ludwig, director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab. It is also higher than the rate in Los Angeles, a sprawling city long associated with gang violence.
"The gun violence problem in America gets a lot of attention when 20 white kids in Connecticut get shot all at once, but in general it doesn't get nearly as much attention as it really needs to," Ludwig said. "It's a huge problem and it's very localized_and it's localized among the most disadvantaged people in the city."
One puzzle is that gun violence has remained high in Chicago while the incidence of other crimes has fallen.
"Our struggle is with violence and particularly gang violence and more specifically gun violence," Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy told WBEZ radio this week. He cited free-flowing weaponry on Chicago's streets as a major challenge for the 12,500 members of the city's police force. Seizing guns, he said, offers limited benefit, with Chicago already seizing guns at a rate three times greater than Los Angeles and nine times higher than New York.
"We're in a position where we're drinking from a fire hose," said McCarthy, who also served in Newark and New York City. "Guns are bought legally and transferred illegally and those are the guns that are ending up killing people here."
Emanuel called this week for a ban on assault weapons. McCarthy cautioned against expecting too much from that one step. Among other measures, he favors longer sentences for illegal firearms possession and emphasizes the need to limit large bullet magazines.
Chicago and the state of Illinois have seen gun control measures thrown out by federal courts, most recently this month when the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a ban on carrying concealed firearms. City Council member Joe Moore said there is only so much local authorities can do.
"Obviously, we've got a problem. Gun violence is way too high in Chicago," said Moore, whose district lies on the quieter North Side. "Sensible gun regulations really have to be done on a national level. Because guns are so transportable, you can't rely on cities or even states to carry the burden."
Tio Hardiman, director of CeaseFire Illinois, says gun violence should be seen not just as a crime but as a public health scourge. In addition to doing "a lot more to stop the flow of illegal guns coming into the city," he said, authorities should pay more attention to mental health and help the most vulnerable young people.
"You have to address the thinking," Hardiman said.
Bullets flew on the South Side on Nov. 26 as the first mourners stepped outside St. Columbanus Catholic Church, where as many as 500 people gathered to lament the death of a reputed gang member. Two young men were hit. One died.
Police said both were foot soldiers in the Gangster Disciples who had come to church to bid farewell to their late comrade. In a gang war that benefits only funeral directors and gravediggers, it seemed fitting that St. Columbanus was once the home church of Al Capone's wife and mother.
On the sidewalk outside St. Columbanus this week, not 10 minutes from where Obama gave his 2007 gun violence speech, Larry Steele talked about three splintered gangs fighting to control neighborhood street corners. These are the Chicago street corners Obama mentioned at his election victory rally on Nov. 6 and again in his post-Newtown remarks from the White House.
Steele, a contractor, has seen violence aplenty during his 54 years on the South Side, but "there was never anything like this. It's just a sad thing to see. The people don't come together, and everyone's fighting for something they can't have. The street corners. The corners don't belong to them."
In the Park Manor neighborhood that should be safe, Steele said, residents are sometimes afraid to walk through a group of loitering young men, because they fear getting caught in a drive-by shooting.
"The guns are used to mark their territory. I guess it's block by block," said Steele, who has watched Chicago police staking out gang funerals and believes tougher gun penalties would help. "A lot of guys do time like a piece of cake, a catwalk. They go into the system and come right out."
A few blocks away, near the corner of East 75th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Ron Smith sees the young men and their guns as they pass in front of his window at League Styles Barber Shop. "They all have 'em," he said.
Smith says arming even more people to stop the young gunmen sounds promising but would probably be pointless: "It would turn into the wild, wild West. Wyatt Earp."
"At this point, it's about reaching the kids that can be reached. Trying to help them achieve something," Smith said, adding that Obama and the federal government could help in a time of debilitating city and state budget deficits. "If they had more programs for the youth, more things for them to get involved in, they wouldn't be out here on the streets doing what they're doing."