The influx of guns is 'ground zero for violence' at the end of a bloody summer in Chicago
By Omar Jimenez and Priya Krishnakumar, CNN
(CNN) -- 1,606 people were shot in a single three-month summer period in Chicago. That's the population equivalent to many American small towns.
The violence isn't limited to the season: A 14-year-old was shot and killed hours after a separate late September mass shooting where five were wounded.
They are numbers, and more significantly lives, that have become part of a grimly familiar dynamic in the city and one that leaders in law enforcement and public office see as "unacceptable" on the other side of an especially bloody summer.
Guns are at the center of it all.
The influx of firearms into the hands of soon to be trigger pullers is "ground zero for violence," Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown told CNN. "It's violent people in possession of weapons."
From June to August this year 261 people were killed, eight fewer than the same period in 2020, but a marginal difference in a year on pace to be the deadliest in nearly a quarter century for Chicago.
According to the 2020 Uniform Crime Report released in late September by the FBI, 76% of homicides nationwide were committed with a firearm. But in Chicago, guns play an even larger role -- fatal shootings accounted for 90% of all homicides last year. So far this year, they make up 94% of Chicago's homicides.
The Chicago Police Department told CNN it is currently on pace to take over 12,000 guns off the streets this year, ranging from pistols to full-on assault rifles, which would be a record for the department.
"I think one of the things that is unique to Chicago is the over proliferation of guns on our streets," said Kim Foxx, the State's Attorney for Cook County, which includes Chicago and its surrounding area, and that it has been a "stubbornly unrelenting problem" for the city.
Many of the guns used in these shootings are initially purchased as legal commerce before changing hands.
"We want to interdict how it gets into the wrong hands and that leads us right to straw purchasers. People who make blood money off of getting guns into the hands of felons, violent people, who couldn't otherwise get that gun in their hands," Brown told CNN.
Where the guns originate
The gun that killed Chicago Police Officer Ella French in August was initially bought in Indiana before being transferred to the eventual alleged shooter, who would go on to use it on French less than six months later, according to investigators.
In a separate 2019 case, a buyer lied on a gun purchase form about who the true owner of the gun would be, claiming the purchase was for himself. The gun was later recovered four months later from someone else after being used during a shooting where 13 people were injured.
How a gun gets into the hands of a potential trigger puller is the most important dynamic to police, but the location of where the guns originate is also a major factor.
"The western suburbs of Chicago and northern Indiana is where most of our crime guns tend to come from here," said John Lausch, US Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois.
Westforth Sports in Gary, Indiana, is being sued by the City of Chicago, which alleges that the gun shop sold more than 850 recovered crime guns over a seven-year period. About 180 of them were sold to at least 40 people who were later charged with federal crimes in connection to these purchases. The complaint alleges the gun shop, which is a little over 30 miles away from Chicago, ignored clear warning signs about the buyers.
Management at Westforth had no comment for CNN.
"We're not seeing truckloads of guns, we're not seeing 100, 200, 300 guns in a crate that are ending up in someone's hands. Typically, what we see from straw purchasing is you know, one or two guns at a time," Lausch told CNN. "The ones we're really interested in are, are they putting it to the hands of someone who they believe is going to commit a crime? Somebody who they know is a gang member. Somebody who has a significant violent criminal history who is likely to use that gun to commit more acts of violence."
Just six Indianapolis residents allegedly straw purchased or illegally dealt over 90 firearms since November 2020, more than 20 of which were recovered from various Chicago crime scenes, including the murder of a 6-year-old and an incident where a Chicago police officer was shot, according to the Department of Justice.
Within a span of 25 days, one of those six allegedly purchased 31 firearms and then later sold all of them within three days of buying. So far, six of those weapons have been recovered in the Chicago area, most recently from a mass shooting, according to the Justice Department.
It's part of why Chicago is among the five cities at the center of the Department of Justice's newest anti-gun trafficking strike forces, targeting more than just a person to person straw purchase.
"That's one of the things that makes it so difficult to work these cases, is there are trafficking schemes out there that involve many parties, or the guns do change hands legally a number of times before they are actually transferred to that person," said Kristen de Tineo, Special Agent in Charge at ATF Chicago. "The difficulty comes [in] identifying that point where that gun leaves legal commerce and goes into the illegal marketplace."
The ATF links shootings using the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, or NIBIN, by looking at the imprints on the cartridge casings of guns that are recovered and test-firing them. If there's a match found in the database from other crime scenes, they can better find the gun's history.
But on the front end, there are few options outside of deterrence, a dynamic the police superintendent says needs more emphasis.
"The penalties in the federal system need to be much more conveyed to people to discourage this idea that this is a harmless, mostly clerical administrative violation of the federal system," Brown said of lying on gun purchase forms to help in straw purchasing. "It is blood money. You are getting the guns...to someone that will harm someone."
The sheer number of guns on Chicago's streets comes within a larger violent context of what Brown has described as a heavy gang retaliation culture and within what Lausch sees as an even bigger issue of offenders who are unafraid of consequences.
"People are emboldened, our violent offenders are, they're not afraid of getting caught and they're not afraid of the consequences of when they're caught," Lausch told CNN.
State's Attorney Foxx agreed that the current violence is much more complicated than the easy availability of weapons on the street. "To simply say that it is just a proliferation of guns and not the communities that have been impacted and the deprivation of resources that existed before the pandemic would be not telling the full picture," she told CNN.
A concerning spike after a decline in crime
Overall crime in Chicago, including robberies and burglaries, is down compared to years past, with August of this year seeing a 20-year low in the two categories, according to the Chicago Police Department. However, homicides are on pace to surpass levels not seen since the early 1990s.
Murders in Chicago recently spiked in 2020, with 770 reported at the end of the year. That figure is the highest number since 1997, when the city was midway through a downward trend in violent crime after peaking at 943 murders in 1992. But the city appears to be on track this year to surpass the total number of murders committed in 2020.
The Covid-19 pandemic, the economic difficulties that came with it, the social unrest of 2020, and more have become factors in what has been described as a breakdown in the public safety ecosystem and an explosion of violence, not just in Chicago but in nearly every one of America's largest cities from 2020 into 2021.
"It started with the pandemic, and then the George Floyd murder," Arne Duncan, co-founder of the anti-gun violence group Creating Real Economic Destiny (CRED), told CNN during a June interview.
"Those next six or eight weeks after that, were honestly probably the worst six or eight weeks of my life," said Duncan, the former US Education Secretary. "We had a staff member killed, we had three of our young men killed, we had a 20-month-old baby of one our men...he was killed, and it was just an extraordinarily dark time."
That particular summer stretch of June through August 2020 saw a roughly 80 percent increase in shooting victims compared with June through August 2019 and an 88 percent increase in murders over that same period in 2019, according to data from the Chicago Police Department.
In the summer period this year, the nearly 1,200 shootings from June through August accounted for roughly 45 percent of the city's total shootings through late September. This year's shootings are up 67% compared to the pre-pandemic levels of 2019 and 11% compared to 2020.
"If people don't feel safe, literally nothing else matters. We've made tremendous progress, our economy is opening up, we did a vaccine distribution and other Covid related mitigations," Mayor Lori Lightfoot told CNN during a July interview. "All of that is for naught if people can't walk down the street."
While gun violence can happen anywhere, most shootings and killings in Chicago are concentrated on the heavily segregated West and South sides of the city.
The disparities in risk paint a picture of separate lives in the same city.
In Austin, a neighborhood on Chicago's West Side, 245 people have been shot this year -- the highest number of shooting victims out of any neighborhood in the city. It is also the city's second most populous neighborhood, but with a victimization rate 9.6 times higher than the wealthier, whiter neighborhood of Uptown on the North Side, according to data from the city of Chicago's Violence Reduction Dashboard. Austin is 78% Black, with a median income of $33,515, a sharp contrast to Uptown, which is 18% Black with a median income of $55,109.
Racial disparities are also starkly evident in the city's shooting victimization data. Black residents of Chicago are far more likely than White residents to be the victim of a fatal or non-fatal shooting, according to data from the city.
As of mid-June, the homicide rate for Black Chicagoans was nine times higher than for any other demographic, according to Chicago's Department of Public Health.
At the time, Mayor Lightfoot told CNN the city is shifting to treat gun violence like a public health epidemic. "That forces you to look at, 'What are the root causes?' And it's not one size fits all," she said.
'You have to change the culture'
In her newest budget proposal, Lightfoot is committing over $400 million in public safety investments including: $45 million for violence intervention programming and community groups, $20 million for youth intervention programs, and $10 million to support victims of violence.
"Too often, when we talk about community violence, we forget the victims. We know of them, but they are more than crime statistics," Lightfoot said during her budget address to the Chicago City Council in late September. "The lives deeply impacted by the violence that once it comes to their doorstep, it lives on in some form forever."
Lightfoot's budget would also increase police spending, though she has told CNN in the past that a safer Chicago is going to take more than just policing.
"Having a strategy that relies exclusively or primarily just on law enforcement doesn't work. And we know that. We've spent billions of dollars across the city policing without other supports for communities and it's not moving the needle fast enough, deeply enough, or permanently enough," Lightfoot said during a June interview.
Lavette Mayes has lived in Chicago her entire life -- more than 50 years -- most recently in the city's South Shore neighborhood.
"Why can't you bring these parents and put the money you're spending on police in our community? It angers me," she told CNN in an August interview. "Because I see this. This is a beautiful area to live in, but at night it turns into a whole 'nother cycle. And these are our kids! These are our kids."
Frustrated, she continued, "We are so far disconnected from what we really need in our community."
There are unresolved issues that have been deep rooted for decades but there are also new ones brought on by the havoc of the pandemic.
"Having people holed up into their homes was something that we couldn't predict in 2019," Foxx, the state's attorney, told CNN. "We have to make sure we give it its proper deference in trying to figure out what happened in that last year."
Jervon Hicks works as a life coach and outreach worker for CRED, primarily out of Chicago's South Side neighborhood of Roseland. He grew up with a history around "guns and shooting," he told CNN, and responds at all hours of the day and night to stop shootings before they happen.
"No amount of money can change what's going on if you don't have your feet on the ground," he told CNN during a June interview.
"People plague the city like it's the worst place in the world. We have a few bad apples, but what tree don't?" he continued. "It's all about the good apples helping to nurture that tree back to being a healthy tree again."
Duncan, the co-founder of CRED, believes the work of people like Hicks and others at the grassroots level is what's going to send violence back toward a consistent downward trajectory.
"Brain surgeons, heart surgeons, they save lives every single day," Duncan told CNN in June. "Our life coaches, our outreach workers, our clinicians, they're saving lives every single day."
In West Garfield Park, on Chicago's West Side, Lightfoot hopes community-based investments can help create "anchors and infrastructure" toward generational change. It is one of the city's most dangerous neighborhoods. Some of these investments include constructing a roller rink and new plaza, renovating the regional library, planting trees, and more.
TJ Crawford is the director of the Garfield Park Rite to Wellness Collaborative, and during a walk with CNN through the neighborhood in July he spoke on the larger mission at hand in the uphill effort to slow down gun violence.
"We can go down a litany of projects that have come and gone from communities and that's the thing, they come and go. We need to make sure this comes and stays," Crawford told CNN. "It's like a ship, it's not just gonna turn in a moment. We have to really do some things to change the values and beliefs. You have to change the culture."
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