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Q&A with msnbc's Trymaine Lee

National reporter Trymaine Lee answered your questions today about his work on gun violence and murder.
Shootings In Chicago Add To 'Murder Capital' Label
A police officer stands guard outside a home where a man was shot in the chest in the Humboldt Park neighborhood on the city's Westside on Sept. 20, 2013 in Chicago, Ill.

National reporter Trymaine Lee answered your questions today about his coverage of gun violence and policing in Chicago. Take a look to see the conversation. 

Jason Smikle: A TED Talk recently by Gary Slutkin suggested that the world should "treat violence like a contagious disease". What are your thoughts on this approach? 

Trymaine LeeHey Jason! This is a really interesting approach and I've had the pleasure of speaking with Gary Slutkin about this very topic.

The idea, as you mentioned, is to treat violence as a contagious disease and a step further, treat those infected with it or those most likely to become infected by it, aggressively, locally.

The model has really shown promise in particular neighborhoods in Chicago. Slutkin's approach has also, as he tells it, spread internationally.

Here's what Slukin told me earlier this year:

“This is a scientific approach that takes a look at violence as an epidemic process and epidemic behaviors. We use a scientific method more than a moralist method. It uses violence interruption and other work to change norms,” said Slutkin, an epidemiologist and physician who founded CeaseFire, now called CureViolence. “Just like when you do TB control or AIDS control. It’s the same system.”

It's called the CureViolence model and Slutkin developed the approach in the mid-90s. By treating high risk individuals—a neighborhood’s shooters or prospective shooters—and de-escalating conflicts in real time, “violence interrupters” aim to break the links that often lead to shootings and retaliatory violence.

The interrupters are so-called "credible messengers," mostly folks from the communities being treated and many of them have had some involvement in gun violence or the criminal justice system. Anyway, in many cities, an overwhelming number of the shootings are retaliatory shootings, revenge violence for a preceding event.

So the idea is that “credible messengers” who have their ears to the street and have the confidence of the community, will be able to catch wind about a brewing beef between people or groups and intervene.

The problem is that the model hasn't been replicated successfully on a large enough scale. But, again, the results have shown promise in particular neighborhoods. But according to groups that have adopted the model in particular catchment areas (neighborhoods), the numbers show it's working to a degree.

I like the idea, because it's the community getting involved. And one life saved is a victory in itself. But to address the kind of urban gun violence we suffer in our cities using this model, we'd need an unrealistically deep bench of "credible messengers" and "violence interrupters." And frankly, I haven't seen that kind of unified, collective groundswell in addressing young minorities dying in our streets.

PaolaPT: Does Chicago have a higher percentage of gun ownership than other cities?

Trymaine Lee:  The City of Chicago has basically had an moratorium on gun ownership. There aren't any gun dealers within the city limits and those who wanted a gun had to apply for a city permit and register their weapon with the police. It was a complicated, difficult process.

That is just context.

The police most recently have said that its gun registry currently contains about 8,000 gun owners and 22,000 guns.

But Chicago police recover as many as 10,000 illegal guns from the streets each year. So far this year, more than 5,500 guns have been recovered.

So, the number of legal gun owners on the books is relatively low. And by the number of guns pulled from the streets each year by police, it's clear that illegal gun ownership is relatively high. 

Now, apples to apples comparisons can be difficult as you'd have to rely on the reporting practices of local law enforcement. It's also difficult to get a really firm number because of a federal law (vigorously supported by the NRA and other gun groups) that prohibits the creation of a national gun registry.

The actual law prohibits the use of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System from being used to create any system of registration of firearms or firearm owners.

Here's a good breakdown by the folks over at

Back to your question, depending on the region and the local gun laws, ownership rates across the country vary widely.

According to a recent study on gun ownership and gun violence published in the American Journal of Public Health, gun ownership in 2010 among the states hovered around 51.7%.

Between 1981 and 2010 the average rate of gun ownership ranged from a low of 25.8% in Hawaii to a high of 76.8% in Mississippi.

Not exactly an answer, but I think it puts the idea in solid context.

Erica Pepitone: The police force seems to be making great strides with increasing its community presence, but as mentioned in the article, "there simply aren't enough officers to cover the entire city." What efforts do you think Chicago lawmakers and community members can make to help curtail gun violence?

Trymaine LeeHey Erica! There are countless community folks and organizations on the front lines trying to curb gun violence. Talking with a number of them and there's a common theme: Complete devotion to trying to save lives. And serious battle fatigue. These folks are driving kids to school, feeding hungry families, persuading petty drug dealers to take job placement programs and finish getting their GED's. 

But they are not on the city's payroll, have families of their own and bare the emotional brunt of seemingly endless bloodshed day in and day out.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has introduced a number of ideas to help tamp down gun violence. To little avail so far. 

A proposal to hire more city cops recently failed in city council. And earlier in November state lawmakers blocked a proposal by the Mayor that would have imposed tougher penalties for illegal gun possession. The measures was largely beat back by black lawmakers who said they’d rather see more resources put toward rehabilitation than longer jail terms.

That's one of the more tricky dynamics at play here. On one hand people want to see greater enforcement of existing gun laws, but on the other hand, history has shown that young minority men mostly, are treated unfairly during every step of the way in the criminal justice system. From arrests to convictions to sentencing, to being nudged toward plea deals that give them fixed prison terms.

Earlier the Mayor said that he'd do his part in pushing lawmakers and then asked the communities (black) to step up. 

ilovebees: What can the City of Chicago do to respectfully mourn those lost to gun violence but also celebrate their hard work to drive down violence? Do you see this as a long-lasting trend downwards in gun violence?

Trymaine Lee: That's a delicate proposition. And the police have been wary of handclapping around the decreasing murder numbers. Mourning is also difficult when it's so easy to segregate victims. Are they sympathetic victims or not. Children or young adults.

Gun violence has been trending downward across the country for well over a decade now. Experts and analysts say it's difficult to really determine what drives these trends. We'll need more time to see how things continue to trend.

But Chicago is currently on pace to seeing its lowest number of murders since 1965.

AlexisGarrettStodghill: "Violence Interrupters" such as Ameena Matthews are putting their bodies in harm's way to stop the violence in their communities. What responsibility do you think the black community and other impacted communities have to end gun violence at all costs? How can these communities act more drastically to get at the root causes of the issues? 

Trymaine LeeFar be it from me to determine what might be the best course of action for Chicagoans, as I sit here in New York City. But you're right on point with your question. As lawmakers and law enforcement wrestle (or not) with the issue of violence plaguing many black communities, the people who deal with the bloodletting also are trying to figure it all out. There are just so many hurdles for the vast majority of folks who aren't involved in committing violent crimes, but end up shouldering the emotional and physical weight of it.

Community groups will say the root causes are clear: lack of economic resources, poor schooling, and few employment opportunities.

Dominique Mann: Do you believe the police department in Chicago has enough transparency in the tactics they employ to ensure safer streets? Does the police department's map of the geography of violence in Chicago align with the perception or experience of Chicago residents?

Trymaine LeeHey Dominque. Many people in the communities most affected by gun violence don't trust the police numbers or their tactics. They recall the days of rampant police abuses and say they still are dealing with them today.

There's a big trust gap that the department says it's trying to bridge. The police hope recent efforts that they say have contributed to declining gun violence rates might show folks they're on the same team.

They've also long used Comstat, the technology many departments use to identify where exactly crimes are occuring and then deploy officers accordingly.

Ernest Brown-8523819: What is the racial break down of vicitms and shooters? 

Trymaine Lee: In 2011, 75.3% of the murder victims in Chicago were black. Hispanics made up 18% of the victims and whites accounted for 4.6%.

Analysts have noted generally that most victims and suspects share the same ethnicity. If you gave me some time I could probably find a more accurate breakdown of shooters by race.

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