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Saving Ronnie Chambers

On Monday, February 4, 2013 Shirley Chambers of Chicago, IL buried the fourth of her children:  Ronnie Chambers, like all of his siblings, was lost to gun violence on the streets of Chicago.

Why did she lose three sons and a daughter to violence and what could have been done to save them?  We can certainly offer more condolences and answers, but an examination is worth the effort.

Despite what our intuition tells us, most US cities (even Chicago) are actually safer today than in years’ past.  News coverage of violent crime, however, is better (faster, with better details), which can give the false impression that violence is more frequent than ever.

There does, however, seem to be a minor uptick in violence in Chicago over the past few years  (from 435 homicides in 2011 to 506 in 2012), which might indicate either a trend or statistical noise.  2013 was off to a brutal start—43 homicides in January—but tapered off considerably in February (only 14 homicides).

Further complicating matters is that Chicago’s overall crime rate decreased in 2012 including rape and robbery.   And so it appears that the spike in violence was not reflected in a general increase in social malaise; people seemed deterred from other criminal acts (including other acts of violence), but were somehow inspired to commit homicide.

The lack of answers as to the causes of violence has served as fertile ground for political opportunists on all sides.  Gun rights’ activists point to Chicago’s gun laws, relatively strict, as proof that gun control laws do not save lives, that violence is the product of behavioral traits and cultural ills unrelated to the possession of firearms.

Gun control activists point to data showing that half of firearms seized in Chicago were legally purchased outside of Chicago, as evidence that the gun control issue is relevant to inner-city violence.

No, gang violence does not exist solely because guns are currently too easy to purchase legally.  Access to legal guns alone did not kill Ronnie Chambers or Hadiya Pendleton.   Surely, if you take the situation to its most extreme case—the utopian fantasy where there are no guns at all—you’d have fewer homicides, but the fact that other major cities with strict laws continue to see decreases in homicide rate (New York City, for example) suggests that the problems transcend legal gun access.  The criminal weaponry market is an underground labyrinth of sellers and buyers, containing a mix of new and old weapons.

Some conservatives are telling a lie that is even more bizarre: Ronnie Chambers would be alive if he were allowed (or even encouraged to) to carry a firearm and defend himself.

We know that this is false: in the encounters that characterize gang-related violence, the authors are fully aware that their targets also may carry weapons.  This doesn’t serve as an overall deterrent; gang members kill with full knowledge that their action will encourage retaliation and retribution.   To suggest that the city would be safer if everyone walked around with a firearm is an joke dressing up as actual policy.

In the end, both agendas should stay out of the funeral homes of Chicago, and Omaha, and New Haven and every other inner city that has been plagued by gun violence.

So how should this dialogue proceed?  I propose studying each epidemic of violence on its own terms, to understand the patterns as they apply to a specific setting, rather than fitting an all-encompassing model to all cities. Violence, after all, is an emergent property of a complex system of variables, rather than the direct consequence of any single actor. Saving our young people and winning the battle against the scourge of violence will require collective action, persistence, intelligence and patience.

Image credit: REUTERS/John Gress


About Cheekay Brandon

Cheekay Brandon is an academic computational epidemiologist and data scientist. A former amateur boxer, he also studies and writes about health inequities, violence, sports, technology, and futurism. Follow him on twitter: @bigdata_kane

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