Half of Chicagoans witness a shooting by age 40, study found

Over half of Black and Latino survey respondents, and a quarter of white respondents, had seen a shooting by age 40, according to the study published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

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Crime scene tape rests in an alley in the West Loop restaurant district where a 23-year-old man was shot and killed over the Labor Day weekend on September 8, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois.

Crime scene tape on the pavement of a West Loop alley.

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More than half of Chicagoans will witness a shooting by age 40, according to a study published Tuesday, and the numbers look even worse when broken down by race.

Over half of Black and Latino study participants, compared to one-fourth of white participants, had witnessed a shooting by that age, according to the study. Results of the study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, were released Tuesday.

“We expected levels of exposure to gun violence to be high, but not this high. Our findings are frankly startling and disturbing,” said the study’s author, Charles Lanfear, an assistant professor at the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology. “A substantial portion of Chicago’s population could be living with trauma as a result of witnessing shootings and homicides, often at a very young age.”

The average age for witnessing a shooting was just 14 years old. Women were only slightly less likely than men to witness shootings, though men were far more likely to get shot.

For the study, more than 2,000 Chicagoans were tracked for 25 years, from childhood and adolescence in the 1990s to the start of middle age.

The study continued tracking participants who moved away from the city, although the vast majority of gun violence incidents that were witnessed occurred in Chicago.

Not all participants just witnessed a shooting, either — many were victims.

Among Black and Latino participants, about 7% had been shot by age 40, compared to 3% of white participants. The average age for being shot was 17.

The study also compared the locations of gun violence in recent years. Rates of shootings within a 250-meter radius of where Black participants lived were over 12 times higher than for areas around the homes of white participants. Rates of shootings near the Latino participants’ homes were about four times higher than White participants.

Living in such proximity to gun violence likely takes a “cumulative physiological toll” on Chicago’s citizens, researchers argued.

“The long-term stress of exposure to firearm violence can contribute to everything from lower test scores for school kids to diminished life expectancy through heart disease,” Lanfear said.

The long-term and diffuse impacts of gun violence are part of the reason why the Chicago Department of Public Health is considering it the next public health issue to tackle “in the wake of COVID,” said Matt Richards, the agency’s deputy commissioner for behavioral health.

Gun violence exacerbates two of the five drivers of the racial life-expectancy gap, Richards said, referring to the notorious life-expectancy gap between Black and white Chicagoans, while also being one of the five.

The two others are: substance abuse overdose and chronic disease. Richards said it has that effect by causing people to be constantly hypervigilant, resulting in elevated blood pressure and use of substances to relieve stress.

“Gun violence is an essential public health issue because the impacts are felt in a domino effect across a community.” Richards said, “and as those levels get higher and higher those impacts aggregate.”

In response, Richards said, the department advocated for a “root cause investment” in things such as affordable housing, economic neighborhood development, transportation infrastructure and public schools, as well as community efforts such as violence interrupters and vacant lot beautification initiatives.

“Effective policing is one part of a much-larger comprehensive approach,” he said.

Michael Loria is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South Side and West Side.

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