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Behind the grim numbers on Chicago gun violence in 2020

Our city will not curb gun violence and bring down the number of murders without addressing the root causes of violence, which have been made worse by COVID-19’s economic and social upheaval.

In this Nov. 11, 2020 file photo, Chicago police investigate the scene of a homicide and shooting on South Homan Avenue in Lawndale. A record year for murders is a wake-up call to address the root causes of gun violence, the Editorial Board writes.
In this Nov. 11, 2020 file photo, Chicago police investigate the scene of a homicide and shooting on South Homan Avenue in Lawndale. A record year for murders is a wake-up call to address the root causes of gun violence, the Editorial Board writes.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

As 2020 draws to a close, Chicago has reached a grim milestone of 766 homicides, the highest number since 778 murders in 2016.

Chicago is not the only American city to experience a dramatic and sobering uptick in gun violence this year, fueled by the social and economic upheaval caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

In New York City, homicides have soared 39% since last year. In Los Angeles, 30%. In St. Louis, 35%. The list goes on, adding up to a 34% increase in murders nationwide since last year, data from the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice shows.

Other numbers in Chicago also are markedly higher than a year ago: 4,115 people shot. 11,280 illegal guns seized. 7,236 gun arrests.

But this is not an editorial about the grim numbers on gun violence. This is about the story behind the numbers. Which is that many, if not most, of those crimes were probably committed by someone who was desperate, depressed, unemployed, undereducated, addicted to drugs and alcohol, poorly raised — or maybe all of the above.

Let’s be clear here: Nobody’s offering excuses for those who murder or engage in other forms of violence. Those who commit violent crimes must pay a just price for the harm they have caused. Public safety must be our first priority.

Some of the increase in murders, too, likely stems from mundane reasons related to the pandemic — tempers rising between roommates who’ve been cooped up in close quarters too long during lockdowns, or an escalation of a domestic violence incident.

But over the long term — over years, decades and generations —Chicago will quell the violence only if it does far more to address the root causes of violence, made so glaringly obvious in this year of the pandemic.

An unprecedented crisis

“There’s always been an urgent need to address root causes,” as Jens Ludwig of the University of Chicago Crime Lab told us. “But when you have a once-in-a-hundred-year public health and economic crisis, it highlights the need for a root cause push of a sort that nobody has seen before.”

Among young adults ages 18 to 24 — the very group most likely to become involved in gun violence — the pandemic has taken a steep toll, Ludwig pointed out.

Take mental health. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey from June found that 41% of adults reported experiencing anxiety, depression, substance abuse or other mental health issues since the pandemic.

The percentage rose to 50% or above among young adults ages 18 to 24, African Americans, Latinos, those with less than a high school diploma and essential workers. One in four young adults had considered suicide within the past 30 days.

“Who can be surprised that we have a gun violence epidemic, in the presence of a mental health epidemic like this?” Ludwig said.

Job loss, too, has been far higher among young people since COVID-19.

“I don’t think we fully appreciate the magnitude of the economic crisis we’re in the midst of right now, especially for young people,” Ludwig says.

A foundation for anti-violence work

Post-pandemic, it will take a massive effort — starting at the federal level with another major stimulus package — to knit together a social safety net that ensures adequate mental health care, quality education, jobs and other resources for every American.

America has done it before, with the New Deal that got us out of the Great Depression. We can do it again — and lay a foundation for curbing violence in the process.

Meanwhile, for all the talk of “defunding the police,” traditional crime-fighting strategies remain essential, though with a more socially responsive emphasis.

Chicago Police Supt. David Brown has vowed to make policing more effective by emphasizing community policing efforts, such as getting officers involved in food pantry giveaways, youth activities and other neighborhood projects.

We favor that approach. Good policing depends on good relationships between officers and the communities they serve. We hope to see the effort ramp up significantly post-COVID.

The same goes for anti-violence street outreach work, another vital tool that’s been hampered by the pandemic.

But as the city’s sweeping anti-violence plan makes clear, those approaches alone won’t work.

“Put simply, without addressing the root causes of disinvestment, poverty, and inequitable social policies,” the plan reads, “Chicago’s violence reduction efforts will fail.”

The proof is in the pandemic, in big cities across the country, where homicide rates are way up for one reason above all: More people are struggling, hurting, alienated and lost.

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