Gun violence reverberates through nation in a year of mass killings
Neil Steinberg December 28, 2012 11:52PM
Noah Foods on the 4900 block of West Augusta Boulevard in Chicago, Ill., on Friday, December 28, 2012. A 40-year-old man was shot dead Thursday outside of the store. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media
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Updated: January 31, 2013 6:43AM
Last New Year’s Eve was a Saturday night.
At the stroke of midnight ushering in 2012, Chicagoans fired their guns into the air. One of them, Michael Smith, 52, at 72nd and Campbell, was heard by nearby police, who ordered him to drop his weapon. Smith instead ran, was chased, and when he turned — raising his gun, according to police — they shot him, many times.
Smith was the first Chicagoan to die by the bullet in 2012. The New Year was not 10 minutes old, the opening tragedy in what would be a year marred by gun violence, not only in Chicago, which reached 500 murders, but across the country, particularly a spate of mass shootings that focused national attention on guns and their place in American life.
If you define a “mass shooting” as a man — and for some reason, women do not commit these crimes — showing up in a public place and randomly shooting people, then 16 mass shootings occurred in the United States in 2012. Only the bloodiest lingered in the public mind for any length of time.
Chicago’s murder rate, meanwhile, soared; 19 percent higher in 2012 compared to last year, with the vast majority — 87 percent — being gun related. The year began with a particularly lethal winter — murders up 60 percent in the first three months of the year, 120 dead between January and the end of March, a period that saw only 75 homicides in both 2011 and 2010. Some experts blamed the warm weather. One weekend, 49 people were shot in Chicago, 10 fatally, including Aliyah Shell, shot in the stomach and killed as she sat on her front porch in Little Village. She was 6. Altogether, there were about 2,400 shootings reported to Chicago police in 2012.
Nationwide, mass shootings were a steady drumbeat — five people killed at a Korean health spa in Georgia in February; 20 shot and one dead at a nightclub in Tennessee; the next day, three students killed at Chardon High School in Ohio.
Spring no different
In the spring, the trend continued: Two dead at a psychiatric hospital in Pittsburgh, two at a funeral home in Florida. In April, seven executed at Oikos University in Oakland, three black men targeted because of their race in Tulsa. In May, five killed at a coffee shop in Seattle.
Meanwhile, gang shootings occurred every weekend in Chicago. By summer, the city’s reputation was echoing around the globe. “Velkommen til dodens by” read the headline on a story on Chicago in a Norwegian newspaper in August: “Welcome to murder city.”
Nationwide, in July, three were killed at a soccer tournament in Delaware, but the horror that first transfixed public attention on guns happened July 20, when James Holmes, his hair dyed orange, entered a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora, Colo., and allegedly murdered 12, wounding 58. If many in Chicago could shrug off its murder epidemic under the rationale that as long as they weren’t living in Englewood, they’d be OK, it was harder for Americans to tell themselves they’d be safe if they stayed out of movie theaters.
Or places of worship. Two weeks after the Colorado shooting, a white supremacist killed six people at a Sikh temple outside of Milwaukee.
And on it went — three people at Texas A&M. Five at a sign company in Minneapolis. Three at a spa in Wisconsin. Two at a mall in Portland, Ore., and, Dec. 14, the crowning horror, 20 young children, all 6 or 7, plus six teachers and administrators, massacred at a grade school in Newtown, Conn.
While the toll from mass shootings — 88 dead — is a fraction of the overall carnage from guns (in fact, with 30,000 Americans shot and killed each year, 88 is about the average number killed with a gun every single day in this country) the inherent horror and randomness of the Newtown killings made more Americans look harder at the price we are paying for our love of guns (or perhaps it wasn’t just the randomness, but also the race: some wondered aloud why black children being gunned down every day is accepted by the public with only a murmur of concern, while white children being slain suddenly sparks an orgy of national soul-searching).
If we avoid speculation, and stick to facts, we find that the facts don’t back up our popular perceptions.
First, the most common victim of a gun is the owner — 55 percent of gunshot victims are suicides and 5 percent are accidents, with the other 40 percent being homicides. Countless people who buy a gun thinking they’re buying increased security are actually selecting the instrument of their own destruction.
Violent crime decreasing
Violent crime is going down steadily, year by year, according to the FBI. The national murder rate of 4.7 per 100,000 is half of what it was 20 years ago. (The Chicago area murder rate is 6.8 per 100,000, three times higher than the rate in New York City).
Guns are the weapons of choice in murder. In Illinois in 2011, there were 452 murders — 377 were with a gun, all but 13 of those a handgun. Those who argue that, without guns, people will still commit murders with any weapon at hand are not correct — nations with tighter gun laws have far reduced murder rates.
In the United States, there are more guns — an estimated 270 million — yet gun ownership is down, dramatically.
“The proportion of households with a firearm has declined from about half in the 1970s to about a third now,” said Tom W. Smith, senior fellow at NORC, an opinion research center at the University of Chicago, and director of the Center for Study of Politics and Society. “That surprises a lot of people. But when you look at two ancillary facts: the proportion of adults who are hunters has declined, and most years the levels of crime has declined. Hunting and self-defense are the two major reasons for having firearms, and both of those trends point away from having firearms.” The paradox of more guns but fewer owners is solved because those who do own guns tend to own a lot more of them. Gun stores report surges in sales based around national events such as the re-election of Barack Obama or Mayan predictions of the end of the world.
“Multiple guns are not that uncommon,” Smith said. “It’s not that rare to have 20, 30, 40, 50 guns, and these people drive up the mean number. Even if it’s one in a hundred, that is enough to bring up the overall average appreciably.”
319 CPS students shot
A lot of guns. And those guns get stolen and traded at gun shows and fall into the wrong hands. Increasingly, those guns fall into the hands of people who shoot children — 319 Chicago public school children were shot in the academic year that ended in June. Twenty-four of them died, a higher toll than in Newtown.
There were marches, protests, vigils. Now President Obama and congressional Democrats, after years of inaction on the problem, say they are going to see if the profusion of guns in America can be stemmed, to bring our shooting death toll more in line with other civilized countries. Republicans oppose this — gun ownership is another partisan divide in our deeply divided country; nearly 60 percent of Republicans own guns, while only a quarter of Democrats do.
We are presented with a shiny new year — 2013. Whether 2013 will also be the year of the gun depends, in part, on how our city and nation respond to the horrendous carnage taking place all around us. Given how little has been done to control guns in the past, how quickly we forget even the starkest horrors, and the tendency for resolutions of any kind to fall by the wayside, the odds are not good. Some have resolved to make 2013 the year our nation will finally do something about its gun problem. Turning words into action will be much harder.