People are getting shot in Chicago in alarmingly high numbers: 3,500 as of mid-October, 1,000 more than at the same time last year. Almost 600 of the victims died.
Chicago has become synonymous with gun violence, attracting attention from the press, politicians, and advocates on both sides of the gun debate. Opponents of tougher gun laws look at the relatively strict gun laws already in place in Chicago and the state of Illinois and see evidence that tighter firearms restrictions don’t work. Driving home that argument, during the third and final debate of the 2016 presidential campaign Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, noted that Chicago had “more gun violence than any other city.”
In raw numbers, Trump’s statement is true. For the sheer number of victims of violent crime, no other city comes close. In 2015, Chicago recorded 478 homicides, more than in any other American city. New York, with 352 homicides, recorded the second-highest number of homicides, followed by Baltimore with 344. Almost everyone who was killed in Chicago that year — 93 percent — was shot to death.
But numbers offer a limited view of a city’s gun violence problem. Chicago, with roughly 2.7 million residents, is the third-most populous city in the country. On a per capita basis, its shooting epidemic is not nearly as severe as the violence in many other large American cities.
“The absolute numbers are helpful putting it in a context that people understand, but with the rates, you get the true scope of the problem in the way it impacts people’s lives,” John Pfaff, a professor of law at Fordham Law School, told The Trace. “People don’t care about the absolute numbers, they care about their risk, and the rates tell that risk.”
Chicago’s homicide rate over the last five years was 16.4 per 100,000 residents. In St. Louis and New Orleans, the homicide rate from 2010 to 2015 was three times as high, on average.
Chicago’s rate of non-fatal shootings was 12th highest of 68 cities in 2015, with a rate of 88.9 per 100,000, according to the Major Cities Chiefs Association. The association collects data from the country’s largest law-enforcement agencies. St. Louis led the list with a rate of 660 per 100,000 — nearly seven times as high as Chicago — followed by Memphis and Oakland.
Risk, also, varies greatly by city.
Dee Wood Harper, an emeritus professor of criminal justice at Loyola University in New Orleans, told The Times-Picayune that a nuanced analysis of urban violence should consider neighborhoods and clusters of violence.
“In New Orleans, look across our neighborhoods,” Harper said. “In some, homicide is more common than the common cold, while others have never had a homicide.”
Earlier this year, The Trace explored how “murder inequality” leaves black residents of some economically isolated neighborhoods in starkly disproportionate danger of getting shot. Contributor Daniel Kay Hertz found that in two Chicago neighborhoods — Burnside and Fuller Park — the homicide rate was more than 100 per 100,000 residents, more than five times the city average.
In St. Louis, 45 percent of shootings this year have been clustered in just eight neighborhoods, according to police data.
Gun violence in American cities is expected to continue to edge up, experts say. Chicago is projected to surpass 700 homicides by the end of the year — an increase of 46 percent from 2015. The Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan policy institute at New York University’s School of Law, predicted an increase in the national homicide rate of 13.1 percent this year over 2015, and an increase of 31.5 percent from 2014. Half of the additional homicides will be attributable to Baltimore, Chicago, and Houston.
“Because Chicago has so many people, it can get a murder every day, and that gets people’s attention,” said Pfaff, the Fordham professor. “But because you focus on numbers, not rates, Chicago ends up looking worse because you forget just how much of a big city it is.”