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The Guns of Chicago

And the safe sidewalks of New York.

Mar 4, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 24 • By HEATHER MAC DONALD
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Though this latest eruption of the gun control-gun rights standoff was triggered by that rarest of all events—an in-school massacre by a non-student—the public discourse on gun violence has subtly shifted since the Newtown tragedy to acknowledge (however sotto voce) that the real problem lies elsewhere. An event as thankfully rare as the Newtown massacre is impossible to predict and nearly as difficult to prevent. Both sides in the gun debate have nevertheless seized upon it to promote their favorite cause—whether banning assault weapons or arming everyone to the teeth. The most common gun violence, by contrast, is drearily predictable and, unlike mass shootings, the source of thousands of homicides a year. It occurs overwhelmingly in certain locations of cities—over the past 30 years in Boston, for example, 75 percent of the city’s shootings occurred in 4.5 percent of its area, whereas 88.5 percent of the city’s street segments experienced not a single shooting. Urban shootings are retaliatory or the product of the most trivial of slights. They are committed with handguns, not assault rifles. And both victims and perpetrators come disproportionately from fatherless homes and communities and are disproportionately minority, by huge margins. Reforming the involuntary commitment laws and beefing up mental health services are largely irrelevant; though the shooters have serious problems with impulse control and are clearly a danger to themselves and others, few would be deemed mentally ill. 

While it is unclear how to prevent mass shootings—short of the unlikely event of removing all guns from the public—we know how to reduce urban violence: data-driven, proactive policing. The New York Police Department has brought crime and homicide down an unmatched 80 percent since the early 1990s by deploying officers to locations where crime patterns are emerging, encouraging them to use their lawful discretion to question people about suspicious behavior, enforcing quality-of-life laws, and holding police commanders accountable for crime on their watch. 

Gun control has had only a limited effect on inner-city violence, as the case of Chicago demonstrates. Despite the Windy City’s strict firearms bans, juveniles under the age of 17 are killed there four times as often as youth in New York. In 2012, Chicago logged 506 homicides; New York, with three times the population, tallied 418. The difference lies largely in policing. Chicago has historically eschewed proactive policing, and is for that reason still embraced by the left—however incredibly—as a model for law enforcement. Some South Side community leaders, however, know better and are calling for the reconstitution of antigang units just so their officers can stop and question more suspects on the streets. 

Whereas Chicago’s minority neighborhoods are awash in illegal guns, criminals in New York report leaving their guns at home or stashing them in communal locations to avoid being stopped with a gun on their person. As a result, 10,000 homicides of minority victims have been averted since the early 1990s. And by lowering violence and fear, proactive policing has done more to revitalize poor neighborhoods than billions of dollars of government-funded social programs have ever accomplished. 

President Obama should have gone to New York City, rather than Chicago, for his poverty and gun violence speech. If he amplified his marriage and fatherhood message and spread the word about how policing can save lives, he could in fact be the transformative president that his followers believe him to be. 


Heather Mac Donald is a contributing editor to City Journal and the author of Are Cops Racist?

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