Last Tuesday, my daughter asked me if I’d heard about Hadiya Pendleton. She’s the 15-year-old King College Prep student who was murdered in Chicago’s Harsh Park. My daughter looked bewildered and frightened, said that Hadiya had just been hanging out with her volleyball team, after a day of final exams, when someone came up and opened fire. She said that Hadiya was a friend of a schoolmate at her own high school and she learned of the news on Facebook. Then she looked at me as if I was supposed to explain it. I just shook my head.
I feel impotent, weak, angry, frustrated, disgusted, horrified. I’m sickened. I’m confused. I’m praying for this young girl’s family and friends.
These stories are coming at Chicagoans with sickening regularity. In January alone, there were forty-five homicides in predominantly African-American communities. Let me ask you this: if these murders were occurring in predominantly white neighborhoods, do you think it would take long to fix this epidemic? Are we inherently racist? Is the fact that these murders have become commonplace in select Chicago neighborhoods given us a free pass to let the problem fester for far too long? Feeling completely frustrated, I asked myself, what can I -- a white middle-age woman -- do about gang violence? And then Hadiya Pendleton was murdered and I thought to myself, I'd better start doing something.
I wasn’t really sure if more gun regulation would help the problem. After all, the gun owners I know are responsible. They use rifles to hunt and keep them unloaded and locked when not in use. But then I investigated the gun laws from state to state and county to county. Talk about holes in the system. All you have to do is drive one hour in any direction to find the guns and ammo your heart most desires -- regardless of the gun regulations where you live.
In Chicago, though, we're not using guns to hunt game. We're using guns to slaughter each other: 45 murders in January alone with 82% of these murders shooting victims.
We are the most armed society in the history of the world. It's estimated that Americans own 270 million guns. That's an average of 88.9 firearms per 100 people. If that's so, why do I no longer feel safe walking into a movie theater or a shopping mall? And don't give me the bird-brained argument about why we need automatic or semi-automatic weaponry. I've heard this one too many times: If our Government takes up arms against its citizens, I'll be prepared. Really? You're going to take your semi-automatic against tanks and planes and missiles and hundreds of thousands of troops? Really? I am a teacher. Don't try to tell me I would feel safer if I carried a gun into my classroom. That's ridiculous on so many levels that it would take another post to contain that response. And having armed college students? Come on. Students packing weapons? Have we completely lost our minds? Instead of target practice, do we need to relearn how to function in a peaceful society? Or perhaps we need to build a peaceful society from the ground up.
So when are we going to get some cajones and stand up to the gun manufacturers, to the NRA, to the vocal, out-of-step fringe elements? When will we get some sweeping, national reform – not hodge-podge gun regulation that morphs from city to suburbs and state to state? I’m terrified at the prospect of our legislators caving in to the demands of the gun lobby (the way the Democratic leadership failed to seize momentum with filibuster reform). It’s almost like they’re saying, ‘Look at all of the quaint and good-hearted people out there clamoring for common sense regulation…but, hey, the gun manufacturers, that’s where the money is and we don’t want to piss them off.’
I couldn’t explain to my daughter why we – Americans and Chicagoans in particular -- find ourselves in this position. Sure, the murder rate in 2011 was down by 10% compared to Chicago's worst year in 2002. But is that something to advertise? Can we really be proud of that?
I feel complicit in what has now become an all too common occurrence in my city. Maybe it’s because I haven’t spoken out. Maybe it’s because I haven’t demanded that the Mayor treat this as an epidemic – not just isolated violence between rival gangs (not that gang violence is more palatable) -- or perhaps it’s because we, as a community, haven’t put enough pressure on the Chicago Police Department to mend community relationships in Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhoods.
Yes, I know that the majority of Chicago police officers are hard-working and honest. Let’s face it, I wouldn’t want to be a Chicago police officer and I admire the men and women who do their job with grace and dedication and good intentions. But the reputation of the CPD has been tarnished by the Christina Eilman tragedy, videotaped beatings of civilians by police officers and the fact that Chicago police officers are the subject of more brutality complaints per officer than the national average.
But, when it comes to illegal firearms entering the city, how can the police fix a problem on which they can’t get solid statistical information? A startling article in The Atlantic, ‘9 Questions About Gun Violence That We May Now Be Able to Answer,’ by Emily Badger, points out that research on guns and gun violence has been shut down by the NRA’s influence on legislators.
Here’s an excerpt from that piece:
We know virtually nothing about the relationship between guns and crime because that whole research agenda has been basically shut down for years," says John Roman, a senior fellow with the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute. Congress (at the prodding of gun-rights groups) has repeatedly blocked public agencies like the National Institutes of Health from funding research into gun violence. As a result, for example, the NIH has funded three such studies in the last four decades. This chart comes from a letter written Jan. 10 to Vice President Biden casting our dearth of gun research in near-ridiculous terms, comparing major NIH research awards from 1973-2012 to the cumulative morbidity associated with each condition:
CONDITION TOTAL CASES NIH RESEARCH AWARDS
Cholera 400 212
Diphtheria 1337 57
Polio 266 129
Rabies 65 89
Total of four diseases 2068 486
Firearm injuries >4,000,000 3
The University of Chicago Crime Lab
Firearm injuries: 4 million. Three NIH research awards.
This is upside down. And celebrity commentary -- by folks like Rush Limbaugh and his ilk -- doesn’t help. I listen to Rush Limbaugh’s rants because, frankly, I want to know what he’s saying (I want to know his talking points so that when I hear them parroted by others, I know where they’re coming from). Let’s face it, he’s ill-informed, dogmatic, slanted, whiny and straight-up wrong on damn-near everything. It’s what I’ve come to expect. He’s also persuasive, cunning, strategic and razor-sharp when he wants to make a point (no matter how far-off base). He certainly didn’t disappoint me today:
RUSH: A 15-year-old high school student, Hadiya Pendleton, drum majorette who attended Obama's recent inauguration and performed at several inaugural events with a band and a drill team, was shot and killed in Chicago last night. A 15-year-old high school student shot and killed in Chicago. You heard about this? She attended Obama's immaculation events, probably the victim of gang shooting. But you're not gonna hear about this because an assault rifle wasn't used, so it can't be used to advance the Democrat media agenda.
Besides, it happened in Chicago, where there's a Democrat mayor. They're not gonna talk about stuff that happens. It didn't happen. And I don't even know how newsworthy it really is anyway since Chicago's already had at least 40 murders this month. We had 30 days go by in Chicago and everywhere else this month so far, 40 murders. That means that Chicago is on pace to have a record 500 murders this year. Never mind Chicago has some of the strictest gun control laws in the country. It already has an assault weapons ban in Chicago. So the 15-year-old high school student, it wasn't an assault rifle used, so it doesn't further the agenda.
Infuriating, right? Where do I begin? First, Mr. Limbaugh, she might have been shot by a gang member, we don’t know, but she wasn’t a gang member nor were the other kids in the group (but, in the larger picture, should it matter?). She was just a kid hanging out with her friends after school. Second, we are talking about it. Third, current gun regulations are ridiculously impotent. Fourth... Wait. What did you say? It doesn’t further the agenda? So, in other words, progressives won’t bring this murder into the conversation because it doesn’t further the agenda -- Agenda with a capital A – of sensible gun legislation. Why? This was the murder of an African-American child AND she wasn't killed by an automatic or semi-automatic firearm.
Come to think of it, maybe you’re on to something there, Rush. After all, since 2001, Chicago has had 5,000 homicides. Most of these, about 14% are gang-related and 82% are gun-related. Let’s put that in perspective. Since 2001, 2,000 American troops have died in Afghanistan compared to 5,000 in Chicago.
Why isn’t there more outrage about ALL of this senseless killing? Is it racism? Is it underreporting? Is it malaise?
I hope Rahm doesn’t come at this problem the way he approached Chicago Public School reform. He pissed off his share of teachers by not involving them in the conversation sooner. He came in, ego blazing and got all I-just-came-from-Washington-&-I’m-gonna-do-it-my-way on them and, instead of getting input, wanted to dictate policy. This ongoing gun violence problem is something that can’t be bullied. The city -- the Mayor’s people -- and the CPD need to listen to community members who are willing to talk. They need to mend relationships in areas where police mistrust keeps folks from doing what they know is right.
To be fair, Emanuel inherited this nonsense but years of neglect led up to it.
Even if it’s not his fault, it’s his problem. But it’s more than just his problem. It’s my problem. It’s your problem. Change is constant. So how can we change the city for the better? Standing idly by and waiting for somebody else to do it won't work. It's going to take courageous legislative steps. It's going to take tough parenting. It's going to take money for social and mental health programs. It's going to take programs to get young people engaged in something besides violent behavior.
Something has to change. And it's going to take all of us to do it.