Chicago teen Hadiya Pendleton became the Windy City’s 42nd homicide this year when she was gunned down by an unknown attacker near her high school on Jan. 29. But the 15-year-old honor student’s death has had reverberations beyond her hometown — she had performed in President Obama’s inauguration parade just a week before, and her tragic end was mourned by celebrities and mentioned during congressional hearings on gun violence. Still, although many have been quick to tie her tragic death to the need for stricter gun-control measures, it’s an awkward comparison: Chicago has some of the most-stringent gun laws in the country, and most of the national debate on gun violence has focused on rifles and assault weapons, not a handgun like the one that killed Pendleton. Clearly, there’s more at work here.
For a deeper look at the problem, TIME talked to University of Chicago Crime Lab director Jens Ludwig about urban crime, federal gun legislation and what can be done to end Chicago’s senseless string of gun deaths.
With all the debate over assault weapons, could the needle now be turning toward urban violence? After all, the majority of homicides in this country take place in inner cities.
I think when you look at President Obama’s proposal, it seems to me that he had places like Chicago in mind, not just Newtown, Conn. A lot of things in this set of initiatives are important for addressing gun violence like the sort we have in Chicago. I saw a quote from a mayor recently — not Chicago’s — that said what we’re experiencing is “slow-motion mass murder.” The vast majority of gun homicides are in urban settings, not mass shootings in suburban schools. The fact that the administration’s proposals paid attention to that is very encouraging.
(MORE: Chicago Girl Who Performed at Obama’s Inauguration Killed in Shooting)
Focusing on Chicago, which has some of the toughest gun laws in the country, what is happening to make things go so awry when a city like New York has seen a reduction in gun homicides?
There are a couple things worth keeping in mind when looking at Chicago. Other than Hawaii, no state is an island. Almost none of the guns used in these homicides were first purchased here because we don’t have gun stores in Chicago. They were purchased either somewhere else in Illinois or in a state with weaker laws. Because borders are so porous, it is hard for cities to regulate their way out of this problem. This is an area where federal legislation could have a more pronounced impact than city or state legislation. Like air quality, what happens in one state can have an impact on what happens in another state.
Now a couple of things make Chicago different than New York City. The level of economic disadvantage, the deep concentration of poverty on the South and West sides is different than what you’d find in New York. A second thing to keep in mind is that the Chicago city and Illinois state budgets have been hit very hard by the Great Recession. My sense is that when I look at New York’s budget, they haven’t been hit nearly as bad as other cities. In the recession’s ground zero, Detroit and Las Vegas, homicide rates have increased 30% to 60%. The roles of budget conditions have not received enough attention in addressing the crime and violence problems.
The third thing to keep in mind is that one of the most useful things a city can do is to keep guns off the street. The huge majority of these things happen in public places, and it’s often people carrying a gun illegally in a public place before a shooting. Many times it’s arguments that turn tragic because someone has a gun and things go terribly wrong.
So it’s a question of dealing with illegal gun possession?
In New York, the courts back up the police when it comes to illegal carrying. The Plaxico Burress case is a good example of this. In a lot of jurisdictions, judges save their jail beds for real criminals. So how do you prioritize your jail beds? If you’re a judge in Cook County, with a defendant caught with $50 in weed and another with a gun, and you’ve got one jail bed, who do you give it to? In New York, the judge prioritizes the illegal carry. The police on the ground in Chicago take illegal carries very seriously, but the courts need to catch up.
Hadiya Pendleton was likely killed by a revolver (the police didn’t find any shell casings at the scene) as many urban youths are. So is the gun debate missing this to focus on assault rifles?
My sense is that [in Congress] the universal background check is more likely to go through than an assault-weapons ban, and that is incredibly important when it comes to handgun violence. The huge majority of gun criminals get their guns not from gun stores but from secondary sources that are not regulated. A universal background check could address that if it becomes law.
(MORE: Hadiya Pendleton: Shooting of Teen Who Performed at Inauguration Sparks Outrage on Twitter)
What can we say is more responsible for gun deaths like Hadiya’s? Is it gang violence? Is it black-market gun dealing? Is it legal gun ownership gone awry? Do gun dealers, for that matter, bear any responsibility?
The challenge that we have is that the federal laws are written in such a way that legal gun owners and law-abiding gun dealers are putting guns in the hands of people who are at elevated risk of misusing them — without breaking any laws. I’m not the right person to make any sort of moral judgment as to who bears responsibility, but if I’m in Indiana and I’m selling my used Glock 9-mm and a guy wants to buy it, as long as he’s not wearing his Rikers Island–alumni baseball cap, I can legally sell it to him. If he’s not wearing it, I would have no reason to know whether or not he’s allowed to have it. Absent a universal background check, I would have no reason to know whether he’s a law-abiding citizen.
In your opinion, what mistakes are law enforcement making? Something has to be going wrong for there to have been 500 murders in the past year. Or are the Chicago cops simply overwhelmed?
My sense is that if you brought in an outside expert to advise the Chicago Police Department, what the outside expert would advise is what they’re currently doing. They are focusing on the violent neighborhoods, they are getting the guns off the streets. This is a situation where there is a huge value to offering more federal support to paying for policing costs. Municipalities are not allowed to run budget deficits and that means they’ve got to reduce their spending on everything — even policing. In an economic downturn, that’s the time you don’t want to cut police budgets. If we want to ensure that we don’t scale back on police, then we need to have increased federal financial support for law enforcement.
Would federal firearms legislation really help in a situation like this? Or do gun laws need to be tailored for each city’s individual circumstances?
I think that the best thing the federal government can do to help a city like Chicago is two things: first, a universal-background-check requirement; and second, increased financial support for local law enforcement. Those are two key challenges that all of the most violent cities in the United States are facing. They would have effects in places like Baltimore, Detroit, East St. Louis — even if they weren’t specially tailored for those cities.