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Violence-Riddled Chicago Hopes Gun Proposals Will Help Shield It

Community leaders and family members of murder victims attend a press conference Jan. 3 at St. Sabina Church in Chicago to make a plea for stronger gun regulations.
Scott Olson
Getty Images
Community leaders and family members of murder victims attend a press conference Jan. 3 at St. Sabina Church in Chicago to make a plea for stronger gun regulations.

As President Obama unveiled his gun control proposals Wednesday, he highlighted mass shootings at schools in Colorado, Virginia and Connecticut. He also mentioned another group of children, not in school — the ones on the street corners of Chicago.

Chicagoan Annette Holt was at the White House during Obama's address. Her teenage son, Blair, was shot to death five years ago on a Chicago bus as he shielded a fellow student from a spray of bullets.

Holt tells NPR she has been waiting for these policy changes since her son was killed.

"After we buried him, we've been on a mission to change what happens to young people, especially in the city of Chicago, because we didn't want other parents to be like us," she says.

There were more than 500 homicides in Chicago last year. Officials and residents in the city are counting on Obama's gun control package to bring that number down.

A few hours after Obama's address, Chicago police officers — in dress blues — filled an assembly hall, and the department's top brass congratulated recruits joining the department.

Leading the event was Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the point man for President Clinton's push for gun control in the 1990s and more recently Obama's chief of staff. Emanuel noted that the class was graduating the same day the president was offering them more tools to fight crime.

"We're only as good as we have a comprehensive strategy about putting more police on the street and getting kids, guns and drugs off the street," he said.

Every year, the Chicago Police Department seizes more guns than any other police department in the United States — more than 7,400 last year, Chicago police Superintendent Garry McCarthy says. Nearly 300 guns have been collected so far this year. A minority of them are assault weapons, but McCarthy has consistently called for banning those weapons and says the president is right to do so.

"I submit that assault weapons and high-capacity magazines are military-grade weapons that don't have a place in our society, except for in the military," he says.

Activists like Colleen Daley, executive director of the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence, says the Obama measures also address an enduring problem for the city: the widespread sale of handguns.

Daley says the group's No. 1 priority for a number of years has been making sure there's a background check for the sale of every single gun.

"We have 120,000 mental health records in the state of Illinois that have not been put in the federal background-check system," she says. "That's not due to ... lack of effort to do it. There hasn't been funding there."

Harold Pollack, co-director of the Chicago Crime Lab, was encouraged, too. He's one of a number of researchers who asked the president to loosen restrictions so researchers would be able to collect more data about guns and homicides.

"We need to investigate when a violent incident occurs to see if there are common patterns with other kinds of violent acts," he says. "And [there are] a number of things where we have not been able to deploy the full force of the research enterprise, of the public health enterprise, to really attack gun violence with the seriousness that this subject deserves."

If there is anything that can help reduce the number of gang-related shootings in Chicago, it's a more scientific approach, says Tio Hardiman, head of CeaseFire Illinois, where former gang members work to intervene in tense situations.

Hardiman says he's pleased with the Obama measures, but he thinks there still needs to be a greater push to treat Chicago violence like an infectious disease, where young people need to unlearn violent behavior.

"Some of the guys that shoot and kill people on the streets of Chicago, their behavior is condoned by their peers," he says. "I've heard people say, 'Look, I'm going to be with you whether you are right or wrong.' "

Perhaps mindful that attitude prevails in some city neighborhoods where guns and gangs prevail, Chicago Mayor Emanuel plans to present a set of his own gun measures to the City Council on Thursday.

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Cheryl Corley
Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.