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In Newtown's shadow, Chicago's bleak gun toll goes on

Her name never made national news. There were no headlines screaming for gun control. There were no teary eyes in the White House.

Her name never made national news. There were no headlines screaming for gun control. There were no teary eyes in the White House. And no one dared utter the obligatory, ‘it’s not supposed to happen here,’ as they so often do when the young and innocent are so tragically taken.

Heaven Sutton was seven years old when she was killed last summer, struck by a stray bullet as she sold candy and snow cones in her front yard on the eve of Chicago’s hottest day of the year.

Her grief stricken mother pleaded for peace. The mayor expressed his outrage. And Chicago—where gun violence is as routine as the L train into the South Side—buried yet another of its young. Heaven joined the more than 270 school aged children to be killed in Chicago in just three years.

Few outsiders will know the names on that list.

But last Friday, on the heels of the horrific killing of 27 people in Newtown, Conn., including 20 first graders, a renewed national debate over America’s access to guns has been sparked. With it a closer look at gun control and gun violence in cities like Chicago, where young people—some of them as young as those killed at Sandy Hook Elementary—have been dying for years in steady, violent trickles with little more than local notice.

Some have died over turf. Some over the spoils of the city’s lucrative drug trade. Still others, particularly the youngest among them, are far too frequently caught in the abyss between a bullet and the lack of effective gun legislation to keep illegal weapons off the streets.

“These mass shootings get the news but they are just the tip of the iceberg, a tiny percent of the gun violence we see in America,” said David Hemenway of the Harvard School of Public Health. “The big issue is always guns. And if we can figure out a way to make it more difficult for inner city gangs to have very easy access to guns, we’ll be making a tremendous difference.”

The pipeline of weapons into inner cities is laced with cash and bad intentions, Hemenway said. From states with lax gun laws to the organizations that spend millions supporting pro-gun legislation, to gun shops that allow traffickers and straw purchasers to stockpile weapons and flip them for easy cash.

“How do the inner city kids get their guns? They get them from somebody trafficking guns in, adults making money trafficking the guns into these communities,” Hemenway said. “It’s about money. And I think this is about a small group of very vocal, animated people…our strange political system where we’ve given huge amounts of power to single-issue lobbies.”

Others blame a criminal justice system that fails to prosecute people caught with illegal weapons to the fullest extent of the law. Still others on police cutbacks.

Regardless of the roots, the cost of gun violence is astonishingly high in Chicago, calculated in both deaths and bullet- battered communities, but also dollars.

Roseanna Ander, executive director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, said the resulting hospital stays, court cases and law enforcement costs related to gun violence, as well as indirect costs associated with residents and businesses leaving the city because of fear of crime and violence are extraordinary.

Anders estimates the cost to be about $2.5 billion annually, or $2,500 per household.

“If you removed the homicides that involve guns, the homicide rates would look like the U.K., London, and Western Europe,” Anders said. “It’s the guns that drive the homicide problems in Chicago.”

The shootings and killings seem to pile highest during the long, hot summers there, particularly in neighborhoods where many lack air-conditioned apartments or live in otherwise inhospitable dwellings. So the sidewalks and corners, front stoops and parks become a draw for folks on the hottest of days. Law enforcement sources say about 80% of homicides involving a gun take place outdoors, the majority of them before the bone-chilling Chicago winters set in.

This past summer, the city experienced a more than 30% spike in homicides while other crimes, including rape and battery have gone down.  Twice this year the city bested its record for the most killings in a single day—six—once in February, and once in August. Over the course of another weekend in August, nine people were killed and 37 wounded in shootings. There were no less than 38 killings in August alone.

The city’s summer death toll even drew comparisons to war zones: 144 American soldiers had been killed in Afghanistan by June of this year; 228 Chicagoans had been killed during that same time period. Many of the dead were school age or teenagers.

The morning after Friday’s killings in Newtown, a headline in the Chicago Tribune read, “10 shot, including 4 teens, Friday afternoon and night.”

The sweeping tallies of violence have become a staple in local newspapers. The names of the victims have become almost secondary to the sheer volume of the violent episodes engulfing them.

“I think a lot of times in communities where this kind of violence takes place often, a lot of us become desensitized. But I think what this incident at Sandy Hook did is show that it can happen in places that you don’t expect,” said Norman Kerr, a youth advocate and outreach director for UCAN in Chicago.  “And I think that’s the way we should look at these things when they happen in Newtown or any other city. These things should always happen where you don’t expect it.”

‘I Turned 12, My Dreams Just Went Out The Door’

Cordell Smith was about nine years old when he witnessed his first murder. A man came barreling from between two homes with a gun in his hand, squeezing off shot after shot into the park across the street. Another man tumbled to the ground, lifeless.

By 12 Smith was an honor roll student with one foot in the classroom and another in gangland, a young member of Chicago’s mighty P. Stone Nation. As he grew older, more impulsive and angry, he said he became adept at handling his fists and a pistol.

“When I turned 12 my dreams just went out the door,” Smith said. “I was loyal to friends. That’s where the fighting came in. I started telling people this is our clique, they mess with you they  have to mess with all of us.”

His reputation began to spread. By 15 and 16 he’d be arrested several times for fighting, with school security guards, teachers, cops, rivals. He’d been shuffled from jail to group homes and youth facilities.

Five of his close friends were killed around the same time. Among them 15-year-old Jasmine who was robbed at her home, shot and wrapped in a plastic bag by a guy they’d all gone to school with. Her killer left her in her family’s basement for her parents to discover days later upon their return from vacation.

There was Brian, whom Smith described as someone he’d looked up to,“the one in a million that was actually doing something with his life.” He was about 21, and was shot to death around Thanksgiving  by his little sister’s vengeful boyfriend who he’d scuffled with just days earlier. Another was killed for crossing into the wrong gang’s territory, “across the tracks,” shot up as he pulled out of a local car wash.

“I’ve seen people actually shoot people right in front of me,” Smith, now 25, and a college student said. “I’ve held a gun in my hand and shot it. Violence to me was like drinking water, something I’ve experienced and seen, not every day but the majority of the days of my youth."

Smith said the draw of violence is strong for youth in Chicago who grow up in poverty and penned in on all sides by gang borders.

"It was normal. It was everyday life. I used to be an honor roll student, then I ventured into violence," Smith said. "I didn't have anyone keeping me on the direct path."

Academics and activists say young people who witness or experience violence essentially grow up in a constant state of trauma to one degree or another. And often that trauma begets emotional paralysis or more violence.

“A lot of young people who are hanging out have been affected by violent incidents that have caused trauma,” said Kerr, who leads UCAN’s Chicagoland Institute for Transforming Youth project (CITY). “Some have been shot, some have witnessed domestic violence or shootings. Go into a classroom and ask how many have been shot, or know someone who has been shot or killed.  Almost all of them will raise their hand.”

“We go under the assumption that most kids in these communities have been exposed to violence, have witnessed it to a certain level or  have experienced it at certain levels,” he added.

Given the wide exposure to violence, Kerr says it’s no wonder why so many turn to guns and gangs.

“In a context of a lot of urban communities where this stuff is  going on, we still expect them to be able to move on because it is so regular. People say,  so what you saw someone get shot, you’ve still got to be able to go to school and function properly in society and that’s the expectation which is somewhat unrealistic.

“Nobody is talking about the trauma piece of it,” he said. “We have 15-year-old guys gang banging. Why are we surprised? There’s so much that they don’t get if you compare them to people who live in safer communities that have a lot of protective factors. They have enormous support, they have more people saying you can do this, that have higher expectations.”

Gary Slutkin, founder of Cure Violence and a professor of Epidemiology and International Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health, likened the trauma of gun violence to an infectious disease.

“We have to stop thinking about this entirely as a moral issue of good and bad, and more as a contagious process that requires an approach the same as we look at other infectious  illnesses,” Slutkin said. “That means we have to look at who has been exposed, who is likely to do events, and offer them something that changes their thinking and the norms about violence.”

If violence was a sickness, Cordell Smith says he had a full blown case.

“I just didn’t care,” he said. “My thinking was,you ain’t doing nothing to stop what’s going on out here, so, I didn’t think for a second to pop you in the mouth.”

‘Vultures Hungry to Devour the 2nd Amendment’

In Illinois, the debate over guns and gun laws have been simmering for decades, when in the early 1980s the city essentially banned handguns within the city limits. The move pitted city politicians, community activists, and anti-gun groups—all of whom had grown weary of city violence—against downstate hunters, Second-amendment ideologues and pro-gun groups.

Chicago continued to take a national lead in enacting some of the strictest gun laws in the country. In 1981, Morton Grove, a Chicago suburb, became the first municipality in the country to pass an outright ban on the possession, sale or transport of handguns. The National Rifle Association then went on a preemptive campaign across the country to push legislation that would stymie similar laws in other states.

In 1982, in the wake of assassination attempts on President Reagan and Pope John Paull II, Chicago introduced and passed an ordinance freezing handgun sales. The ban did little to slow gun violence in Chicago, as the crack-era of the mid-1980s fueled never-seen-before violence across the nation.

In the years to come there would be challenges to the city’s gun ban. And in 2008 the Supreme Court struck down a handgun ban in Washington, D.C., saying it violated residents' Second Amendment rights. The ruling opened the door for a challenge in Chicago, and Otis McDonald, then a 74-year-old black  man who’d grown tired of the "gangbangers and drug dealers" in his South Side neighborhood, became one of the lead plaintiffs in a case challenging the decades-old laws. In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the city’s handgun ban was unconstitutional. New, extremely restrictive laws were crafted to allow residents to legally own handguns.

And, just last week, a federal appeals court tossed the state’s ban on carrying concealed weapons. The state had been the only one in the nation with a concealed carry ban. It now has 180 days to craft concealed carry legislation.

"I have fought this industry time and again," Mayor Rahm Emanuel told reporters recently. The city has vowed to keep fighting.

“This ruling came out approximately a week before this incident, this unfortunate incident,” said Tom VandenBerk, CEO of UCAN, the Chicago youth advocacy organization, of the recent concealed carry ruling and the Newtown massacre. The ruling is a setback to anti-gun groups and a victory for the gun industry and groups like the NRA, who VandenBerk says has pushed their pro-gun agenda in cities already reeling from gun violence.

“Our rights, our freedom, our rights and our freedom, that’s always the reaction you get from them,” he said of the pro-gun lobby. “There’s almost never any sympathy or understanding, and I think there’s a bit of a racist thing happening. They say, those kids in Chicago are just killing each other, they’re just gang bangers.”

But the mostly black and Latino youth dying by the gun aren’t the only ones being impacted, Vandenberk said. He said that in rural downstate Illinois there’s a real epidemic among “white kids committing suicide” because of the availability of guns.

Richard Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association, said there is no racial component to the fight over the Second Amendment or over the concealed carry laws.

“If you pass concealed carry, the first groups that are helped by this are minority women, the elderly and disabled people,” Pearson said. “We have a lot of black and Latino members who want concealed carry, that’s just a red herring…They’re all liars,” he said of the so-called liberal anti-gun set.

Pearson’s group released a scathing statement following the Sandy Hook massacre, at once offering deep sympathy to the victims and vitriol for those calling for stricter gun measures.

The three-page release read in part:

“The heartfelt compassion we feel for the victims of this crime is matched only by the deep disdain we feel for Governor Pat Quinn, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the rest of the political opportunists who have swooped down on Newtown like a flock of vultures hungry to devour the 2nd Amendment.”

The statement continued: “The echoes of the sirens had hardly faded when Quinn and other gun control extremists hit the airwaves calling for the passage of legislation that would effectively abolish the 2nd Amendment to our Constitution.”

“Don’t be confused,” it read. “Such talk is just meant to soften you up for a serious curtailment of your right to keep and bear arms...As we have said many times before, gun control is a disease and you are the cure. We’re about to face an epidemic of attempted gun grabs. Be prepared and arm yourself with the resolve to uphold that which so many brave men and women have died to defend.”

In the wake of the Sandy Hook killings, Pearson also suggested that armed guards be positioned inside schools.

“We put an armed guard in front of a bank, as they say its merely money. But we don’t protect our kids, our most precious possession, our most precious asset?”

No More Banging

Cordell Smith says he began to grow weary of the constant looking over his shoulder, of the fights and arrests. In 2003, after the last of his many arrests, and the bad news that his elderly foster mother had developed cancer, he knew it was time to change.

“She knew there was better in me,” Smith recalled. “She made me promise that I would continue to change and go through with it. It was that and me wanting change that made me change my life.”

A judge's order that he be remanded to a youth home run by UCAN, also helped, he admitted. He said there were mentors there who understood his struggles and stuck by him even during the toughest times. He stopped gang banging and went back to high school.

He got a job at Kmart. There was no more shooting or getting shot at.

In a semester and a half Smith said he’ll be graduating from Chicago State with dual degrees in economics and sociology, degrees he plan on using to create business and mentorship opportunities in his old neighborhood. And he serves as a youth ambassador for UCAN, touting the 143-year-old organization's good works in helping to turn him and so many others around.

As for the old gang, he says he still sees many of them. The older members are proud he’s made a way for himself. The younger ones are oblivious of who he used to be, many of them even more violent and more into the streets than he and his friends ever were.

“You really can’t totally walk away, truthfully,” Smith said. “Even though I don’t associate myself with it, most people will say I’m still in a gang. I just stopped one day. I didn’t come out and say I’m not a part of it anymore, I just stopped.  In a sense they just respected it, they respected that I was better. Some older guys around respect me, and say , we need more than you making it out.”