CHICAGO (Reuters) - When 10 people were fatally shot and 44 others wounded during a balmy June weekend in Chicago, the city was rebranded as a symbol of out-of-control urban violence reminiscent of Al Capone’s bloody reign in the 1920s.
Thanks to a Supreme Court ruling this week undermining Chicago’s strict handgun ban, law-abiding residents will soon be able to legally own a handgun amid the mayhem — although the ruling was criticized by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley as likely to fuel more gun violence.
In the wake of the court ruling, Daley proposed new restrictions including a handgun registry, firearms training for gun owners and a requirement allowing owners to have just one gun readily available for self-defense.
But experts trying to quell the street violence say illegal guns are plentiful and gun control laws do not address the underlying problem — guns in the hands of poor, angry and frustrated residents who open fire over drug-dealing turf and the smallest slights.
“Chicago is known to be a gangster city all the way back to the Al Capone days,” said Tio Hardiman, director of the group CeaseFire, which employs former gang members as counselors to defuse confrontations. “People expect violence in Chicago ... we have a subculture of violence.”
“You can buy a gun (illegally) just as easy as a pair of bootlegged gym shoes or a fake Gucci purse,” he said.
Estimates vary, but there are nearly enough guns in circulation in the United States to arm each of the nation’s 300 million people.
Hardiman said giving residents the right to own guns is not likely to intimidate tens of thousands of gang members in the city — as some gun rights proponents contend it could — but may instead encourage a “cowboy” mentality.
There have been more than 200 murders in Chicago so far this year and the city is about on pace for the five-year average of nearly 500 murders and roughly 1,800 shootings annually.
A report last year by the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab estimated that each gunshot wound victim costs the city $1 million in medical, law enforcement and other costs, and each murder caused the departure of 70 people from the city.
Many of Chicago’s killings this year have been in swathes of the city’s impoverished West and South sides. All too frequently, children have been among the innocent bystanders hit by gunfire, stirring consternation and triggering anti-violence marches.
But perpetrators of the violence are unmoved, said Victor Woods, an activist who speaks at prisons and to other groups.
Decades of neglect have left some neighborhoods with rampant joblessness, poor schools and broken families, leading to despair and violence, he said.
After a particularly bloody weekend in April, Chicago Police Chief Jody Weis took issue with comparisons of Chicago’s streets to Iraq.
“We are not ‘Chi-raq,’” he said. “We are Chicago.”
A debate ensued among newspaper columnists over whether residents in wealthier, white areas cared about the violence.
Last year, the violent deaths of dozens of Chicago public school students and the videotaped beating death of a 16-year-old student by classmates were the focus of attention. U.S. Attorney Eric Holder paid a visit to President Barack Obama’s hometown and deemed the violence unacceptable.
This year, some experts fear the city will suffer through a violent summer amid high unemployment. They cited the defeat in the U.S. Congress of a summer jobs program that would have employed as many as 10,000 Chicago youths for six weeks.
“There will be consequences ... there could be riots,” education expert Jack Wuest said of the failed jobs bill.
An Illinois state legislator suggested calling out the National Guard to help police violent neighborhoods, an idea rejected by the mayor.
“With school out and summer here, I want to remind all Chicagoans that we all have a responsibility to end the cycle of violence that plagues too many of our neighborhoods and takes our children from us,” Daley said in announcing a program that enlists 40 churches to run programs for 1,000 youngsters.
“In Chicago, we’re just having a bunch of double-talk,” Woods said. “Until we realize we have a problem that we can’t control, that we can’t arrest our way out of it, we can’t imprison our way out of it ... There’s always going to be a new crop of shooters. You can find him in second grade right now.”
(Editing by Bill Trott)