500 murders in Chicago in 2012; 435 caused by guns

A couple of years ago, I began to notice a lot more young men in wheelchairs boarding the public buses in my hometown of Chicago. At first, I wondered if these men were disabled veterans from the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. But it didn’t take long before I realized that they were veterans of another war, albeit one that is every bit as deadly.

This past week, my city achieved a melancholy landmark: 500 murders have occurred here this year. 87% percent of these murders, or 435 of them, were committed with guns. Chicago, which has racked up more murders than any other American city this year, has been called “the murder capital of America” (though, to be pedantic about it, it does not have the country’s highest murder rate. New Orleans enjoys that dubious distinction). The violence here is getting steadily worse; the murder rate is a stunning 19% higher than it was in 2011. A total of 2,400 shootings have been reported to Chicago police this year.

Of the many reasons for this spike in violence, two stand out. First, experts say that gang wars are behind a lot of the violence. Secondly, this is a city where, it is said, you can get your hands on a gun “as quick as you can get a burger at a fast-food restaurant.”

An article in this weekend’s Sun-Times busts some of the myths about gun violence. The reporter, Neil Steinberg, points out that although horrific mass shootings like Newtown understandably grab headlines, it’s the individual acts of violence like the gun-related carnage in Chicago that end up taking the greatest toll.

Steinberg summarizes some of the statistics:

First, research clearly shows that owning a gun will make you less safe, not more safe:

[T]he most common victim of a gun is the owner — 55 percent of gunshot victims are suicides and 5 percent are accidents, with the other 40 percent being homicides. Countless people who buy a gun thinking they’re buying increased security are actually selecting the instrument of their own destruction.

Second, violent crime is decreasing. Steinberg writes that “[t]he national murder rate of 4.7 per 100,000 is half of what it was 20 years ago.”

Third, even though we now have many more guns in this country — an estimated 270 million of them — there are far fewer gun owners:

“The proportion of households with a firearm has declined from about half in the 1970s to about a third now,” said Tom W. Smith, senior fellow at NORC, an opinion research center at the University of Chicago, and director of the Center for Study of Politics and Society. “That surprises a lot of people. But when you look at two ancillary facts: the proportion of adults who are hunters has declined, and most years the levels of crime has declined. Hunting and self-defense are the two major reasons for having firearms, and both of those trends point away from having firearms.” The paradox of more guns but fewer owners is solved because those who do own guns tend to own a lot more of them. Gun stores report surges in sales based around national events such as the re-election of Barack Obama or Mayan predictions of the end of the world.

Gotta love that bit about people buying guns because of the Mayan predictions about the end of the world! It supports what I’ve long maintained, which is that, unless you use guns for hunting or sport, gun ownership is totally irrational. The gun nuts have two basic arguments. One is that owning a gun will make you more safe, and the other is that owning a gun will make you more free.

Owning a gun certainly does not make you more safe — see the statistics above.

Nor does it make you more free. The “freedom” argument seems to work this way: you need a gun in the event you need to organize a mass uprising against the government. But if you really believe an armed militia would be any defense against a powerful central government with rocket launchers and nukes, you are absolutely freakin’ nuts. Armchair revolutionaries who seek to overthrow the government need a viable strategy for winning the military over to their struggle. Any independent armed militia movement would inevitably end in a Waco-style massacre. Guerrilla movements have sometimes been successful, but only in societies like Vietnam and Guatemala, which were agricultural and strongly communally based — the exact opposite of our modern economy and individualistic, atomistic society.

Getting back to the real world, Steinberg closes his piece by noting that this year, 319 students in the Chicago Public Schools were shot, and 24 of them were killed — more than the number of students killed at Newtown. Just how “safe” and “free” do you think those kids, their classmates, their siblings, and their families feel?

The horror at Newtown has, at long last, focused national attention on the problem of guns. I’m optimistic that Congress might even do something this time. Not enough, of course, but even mild prohibitions, like the loophole-ridden 1994 assault weapon ban, was effective. And even gun owners and NRA members support measures like five-day waiting periods and strictly prohibiting the mentally ill from owning guns.

The New York Times reports that President Obama tasked Joe Biden with making legislative recommendations to the White House about gun law reform. This is good news. Biden has a wealth of experience with this issue, and his candor on the subject is refreshing. The Times piece leads off with this anecdote, which reminded me of what I like most about Joe Biden:

Never much known for restraint, Joseph R. Biden Jr. did not hold back during a presidential primary debate in 2007 when a voter asking about gun rights in a recorded video displayed a fearsome-looking semiautomatic rifle and declared, “This is my baby.”

Mr. Biden, then a Delaware senator in a dark-horse bid for the White House, shook his head. “I tell you what, if that’s his baby, he needs help,” he said. “I think he just made an admission against self-interest. I don’t know if he’s mentally qualified to own that gun.”

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee