February 14, 2013
Everyone in Chicago knows by now of the tragedy that likely prompted President Barack Obama’s visit to the city Friday: the killing of 15-year-old honor student Hadiya Pendleton in a park last month.
We know the equally tragic reason the president will use the city as a backdrop to pitch his gun-control agenda: More than 500 people were murdered in Chicago last year, more than any other city in the nation — and more than the number of coalition troops killed in Afghanistan in 2012.
Three days before Hadiya’s murder, seven people were killed in Chicago within 24 hours, the youngest a 16-year-old boy. The mother of one of those shot had already lost her three other children to gun violence.
Last year, 7-year-old Heaven Sutton was caught in a shooting and killed as she was selling candy and snow cones with her mother on the street outside her home.
In Chicago alone, more than 270 children have been killed since 2007.
The president will imply his proposed ban on “military-style” weapons, along with expanded background checks, will help curb the violence here in the murder capital of the United States.
But so far Obama has scarcely mentioned the one factor that lies behind Hadiya’s murder and behind most of the killings in Chicago last year: gangs.
Although the president does not acknowledge the gangs’ role as a major cause of the epidemic of violence, the FBI does.
The FBI estimated in 2011 that there are roughly 1.4 million active gang members in the U.S., an astonishing 40 percent increase from 2009.
These gangs, the FBI says, are responsible for “an average of 48 percent of violent crime in most jurisdictions, and much higher in others.”
Chicago police estimate that roughly 80 percent of homicides in the city are gang-related. There are about 100,000 gang members here.
There’s no avoiding the fact that black Americans especially suffer in the cycle of violence gangs help feed. Only 13 percent of the U.S. population is black, but this group accounts for half of all homicide victims nationwide. The homicide victimization rate for black males ages 18 to 24 is 19 times the national average.
But while gangs affect some populations disproportionately, they in fact show broad variation. There are Asian gangs, East African gangs, West African gangs, Caribbean gangs, Latin American gangs, Eastern European gangs and white supremacist gangs.
Hadiya’s death at the hands of these groups makes her one of far too many such tragedies. A quarter of all gang-related killings in the United States strike children younger than 18.
The FBI National Gang Threat Assessment reports gangs have established “wide-reaching drug networks; assisting in the smuggling of drugs, weapons, and illegal immigrants,” and increasingly engage in “alien smuggling, human trafficking, and prostitution” as well as “white-collar crime such as counterfeiting, identity theft, and mortgage fraud.”
In many cities, gangs work closely with Latin American drug cartels. The Department of Justice’s National Drug Intelligence Center has gone so far as to call gangs “the primary distributors of illegal drugs on the streets of the United States,” adding that they “readily employ violence to control and expand drug distribution activities, targeting rival gangs and dealers who neglect or refuse to pay extortion fees.”
Nearly all gang-related homicides involve guns — mostly handguns. This is where the president’s political pitch runs into trouble.
The FBI reports that “typically firearms are acquired through illegal purchases; straw purchases via surrogates or middle men, and thefts from individuals, vehicles, residences and commercial establishments.” Gangs do not bother to buy guns legally from dealers who do background checks.
This suggests new gun laws are very unlikely to stop the flow of guns to gangs, which exist by adeptly navigating the black market for drugs and, yes, weapons. Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker recently said that he had reviewed the “hundreds and hundreds” of firearm homicides in his city since he became mayor and found only one in which the gun used was acquired legally.
The fact is, all these laws will do is make it more difficult for the law-abiding to protect themselves, while doing virtually nothing to slow the violence that is ravaging places like Chicago.
When President Obama visits Friday, let’s hope we hear something more thoughtful than the usual rhetoric about expanding background checks, to which gangs never submit, and banning some weapons which they rarely use.
Honesty about what it will really take to face gang violence is the best tribute he can offer to Hadiya Pendleton and the dozens of other children killed in Chicago each year.