Friends and family of Gwain Brown, a high school sophomore killed on the South Side last month, hold signs asking to stop gun violence. | Manny Ramos/Sun-Times.

Gun violence is a public health problem — and Illinois could be a better doctor

The Chicago Police Department reported last week that the number of people murdered in the city fell ten percent during the first four months of 2019 compared to last year during the same period.

While that’s good news and part of a two-year downward trend, lost in much of the coverage was a worrisome murder spike in the month of April.


The Chicago Sun-Times counted 62 Chicago homicides in April, up from 37 in April of last year and 48 in April of 2017.

It’s too early to tell whether this is an aberration or a trend. Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot has been busily meeting with law enforcement officials over the past several days in an attempt to develop a plan before she takes office on May 20 and before summer starts, when street violence tends to increase as the weather warms.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker spent over a year on the campaign trail talking about his strong belief that violence is a public health issue. I happen to agree with him on this. We cannot police ourselves completely out of this problem. Violence often spreads like a disease and research has shown that when it’s treated as such, the contagion can be slowed or even halted.

As an integral part of treating violence as a public health issue, Pritzker touted his support for violence interruption programs, which do things like mediate conflicts between rival individuals and groups and try to prevent retaliations from spiraling out of control.

After then-Gov. Bruce Rauner blamed the city’s crime problem on the lack of jobs and even illegal immigrants, Pritzker countered during a debate last October by laying at least some of the blame at Rauner’s feet.

“Gun violence across the state of Illinois has gone up in the very same period that Gov. Rauner refused to compromise on a budget,” Pritzker said during the debate. “So many of the violence interruption services, human services that people have as their last vestige of connection with civilization, have gone away.”

Indeed, the General Assembly had appropriated $4.7 million for violence interruption programs in Fiscal Year 2015, Rauner’s first year in office. But Rauner stopped spending that money and then nothing was appropriated for the following fiscal year, which began July 1. Shootings spiked almost immediately.

In all of 2014, before Rauner took office, 415 people were murdered in Chicago. Rauner, who didn’t recognize the connection between violence and public health, was inaugurated in January of 2015 and the number of murders rose to 468.

The city saw another huge increase in violence in 2016, with murders soaring to 750.

But violence-prevention funding was mostly restored after taxes were raised over Rauner’s July 2017 veto. The murder rate began to decline, dropping to 650.

Not all of this trend can be attributed to violence interruption services, of course. But the one Chicago community which managed to secure non-state violence interruption funding in 2015 was the only one spared from that year’s bloody surge in killings.

On his first full day in office this past January, Pritzker told reporters he wanted to expand violence interruption programs.

“Those programs have been decimated across the state,” he said. “And so we should be focusing on interrupting violence as much as possible.”

And as he approached his first 100 days in office, Pritzker told ABC 7’s Craig Wall: “The fact is violence interruption programs addressing the issues that prevent violence before it occurs, that’s the most effective thing that we can do.”

Pritzker also touted an increase in anti-violence funding during his February budget address. “This budget adds funds for community-based violence interruption,” he told lawmakers.

The governor never actually said how much he was proposing to add to the program, but it turns out his requested increase is a mere $2 million.

Every little bit helps, obviously, and nobody is complaining yet, but the money doesn’t appear to match the governor’s soaring rhetoric.

When I asked the administration why more wasn’t appropriated, I was told there just isn’t enough available state money to go around to fund all of the things the governor wants to do, ergo his push for a graduated income tax.

Pritzker is right that these programs work, and Chicago isn’t the only Illinois city that has benefited from them over the years. Somehow, we need to find a way to do more.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and

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