Chicago: Guns and Gangs in the Windy City

On Tuesday, Federal Judge Edmond Chang ruled that the city of Chicago’s ban on legal firearm sales within city limits is unconstitutional. In his decision, Judge Chang claimed that the government is “obligated to protect constitutional rights, including the right to keep and bear arms for self-defense”. Representatives for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel were quick to respond to the decision, stating that Chicago needs gun safety, not increased accees to firearms. By now, gun owners as well as Hoosiers have become accustomed to taking the blame for Chicago’s issues, but the mayor’s unwillingness to appropriately distribute blame to his constituency is troubling, especially when we consider the real sources of Chicago’s violence.


The above graphic has been passed around social media by firearm enthusiasts as evidence that firearms are not the problem in Chicago. At the same time, proponents of gun control have derided the comparison as unfair and inaccurate. To be fair, even I do not consider the conclusion that cold weather causes crime to be completely serious. Regardless, let us use this comparison as a baseline in understanding what exactly is wrong in the Windy City.

From a population standpoint, the Chicago/Houston comparison is the closest available within the United States. In terms of racial distribution, both cities share large minority populations, with Houston leaning more Hispanic while Chicago skews more African-American. Median incomes within the two cities are roughly the same.

The glaring differences come to the surface when we consider the vastly different homicide rates displayed by each city. According to the FBI’s most recent crime data, Chicago’s 500 murders and non-negligent manslaughters in 2012 earn the city a homicide rate of nearly 18.5 incidents per 100,000 residents. In cities with over 100,000 residents, this earns Chicago 23rd place in terms of overall homicide rate. In stark contrast, Houston reported 217 homicides in 2012 for a rate of around 10 per 100,000 residents. Such a statistic places Houston in 65th place for homicides in cities reporting populations greater than 100,000.



Now, this comparison is not without some obvious and incredibly valid weaknesses. The most obvious of these is that Chicago’s population is packed into an area of 234 square miles whereas Houston occupies nearly 628 square miles. Certainly there might be an argument that packing so many people into such a small area could breed violence. However, making such an argument necessarily requires a concession that legal gun availability is not the driver of this violence.

Another issue is that there are indeed cities in gun-friendly states that rank ahead of Chicago in terms of homicide rates. This is a valid point and it is often gun control proponents’ basis for defending the city’s gun laws. Still, we must acknowledge that cities such as Baltimore, Newark, Oakland, Stockton, and San Bernardino all fall within the borders of substantially gun-unfriendly states. The point here is not that more guns lead to fewer crimes or that fewer guns lead to fewer crimes, it is that legal firearm availability is not a major determinant of homicide rates. This leads us to another, uglier issue: gang membership.

According to an FBI study from 2011, Illinois comes out far ahead of other Midwestern states with respect to overall gang membership. Whereas gang violence is a relatively minor issue in neighboring Indiana, Illinois ranks near the top of the United States in gang activity with over 6 gang members per 1,000 residents. A relationship between gang populations and homicides can be further seen in such states as California, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Michigan. Using the map below along with the FBI’s crime data, it is easy to see a very strong correlation between gang populations and violence in several major US cities.


The critical takeaway is that Rahm Emanuel and his representatives are wrong to assume that legal firearm sales within Chicago’s city limits are going to necessarily lead to increased violence in the already beleaguered city. His city has a major gang problem that needs to be addressed. Based on the FBI’s data, there is absolutely no reason to believe that gang membership is driven by legal firearm availability. Certainly, I wouldn’t expect to see the likes of Chief Keef walking into a federally licensed dealer in Chicago to pick up a firearm. While the Mayor can blame Indiana as much as he wants, the fact of the matter is that his gun-friendly neighbors to the east are not plagued by the same levels of violence that seem to exist within Chicago. Until the mayor is willing to seriously address the drivers of gang violence, such as poor education, poverty, dysfunctional families, and criminal recidivism turbulence within the Windy City is not going to settle down, no matter how hard he cracks down on guns.



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