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Urban Violence

How and Why Chicago’s At-Risk Youth Carry Guns

Young people in the city’s violent neighborhoods arm themselves for protection, new research shows, knowing that few shooters are caught by the police.

At-risk young adults in Chicago are distrustful of police and believe a gun is necessary for protection, according to new research. The study, released on October 4, adds to the growing understanding of the city’s illegal gun market and underscores how the Police Department’s failure to solve the vast majority of shootings has reinforced perceptions of impunity.

The study, titled “We Carry Guns to Stay Safe,” is based on a survey of 345 men and women between the ages of 18 and 26 who live in high-violence neighborhoods on the South and West Sides of the city. Researchers working for the Urban Institute and the Joyce Foundation found that about a third of all respondents, and half of all men surveyed, had carried guns at some point in their lives. (The Joyce Foundation provides funding to The Trace.) They almost always did so unlawfully and were driven by the same self-defense concerns fueling legal firearm ownership around the country.

Of the 97 men who told the researchers they had carried a gun, 93 percent said they did so to protect themselves, and 84 percent said they did so to protect friends and family members. Their sense of fear was rooted in their experiences living in crime-afflicted neighborhoods: More than a third of the same group of respondents said they had either been shot or shot at during the past year. Eighty-five percent knew someone else who had been shot or targeted.

“You become a different person when you have a gun,” said one respondent who was quoted in the study. “Somebody look at you wrong, and because you have this gun, you have the power to flash it or shoot them.”

Though few respondents who carried guns said they did so regularly, less than one in five thought the risk of getting caught by police with an illegal weapon was high, and even fewer — one in 10 — believed they would likely be arrested for shooting at someone.

The belief that perpetrators of gun crime rarely face legal consequences seems a reflection of the Police Department’s lackluster performance in solving shootings. In police parlance, the percentage of crimes solved is known as the clearance rate. The Chicago Tribune reported in August that the department’s clearance rate for homicides has been trending downward, falling to about 17 percent last year. The clearance rate for nonfatal shootings is even lower: A University of Chicago Crime Lab analysis found that police solved only 5 percent in 2016, a year in which the city reeled from a surge in violence.

“The reality is that folks who are shooting people are not getting caught, at least not in a timely manner,” said Jocelyn Fontaine, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and the lead author of the survey. “The folks in these neighborhoods know that, are feeling that, and our survey bears that out.”

Three out of four of respondents who carried a gun — both male and female — said police had stopped them for no good reason. Less than 10 percent thought police were honest, effective at combating crime, treated people with respect, or did their jobs well.

Chicago is notorious for its strained police-community relationship. For the last three weeks, residents have been transfixed by the trial of Officer Jason Van Dyke, who was convicted of second-degree murder on Friday for fatally shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in 2014. Last year, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan sued the Police Department for engaging in what her office called a pattern of excessive force and other misconduct. The lawsuit prompted city and state officials in July to unveil a sweeping plan to overhaul the department under federal court supervision. The rupture has been blamed for dissuading residents from stepping forward with information about crimes, crippling police efforts to solve them.

The researchers for the survey enlisted participants in the neighborhoods of Austin, Auburn-Gresham, Englewood, and North Lawndale by working through service providers and making random household visits. The study is not representative of young adults in those neighborhoods as a whole, but provides more information about young adults most at risk of being victims or perpetrators of violence.

The majority of those who took the survey — 69 percent — said it would only take hours to acquire a firearm. When asked how young people manage to get guns, huge majorities said common ways were through street dealers, buying or borrowing from a friend or family member, or stealing. Twenty-five percent said people were likely to acquire a gun by finding one on the street, in the garbage, or in a railroad train, while only 8 percent said they were likely to buy a weapon from a gun store or at a gun show.

The conclusions mirror research published in The Journal of Urban Health in May. In that study, the authors used hundreds of thousands of records to map out connections between offenders arrested by the Chicago Police Department, and found that they were on average between two and three “handshakes” away from someone caught with an illegal firearm. Belonging to a gang put guns within even easier reach.

“This is certainly telling a story that guns are easily accessible, and that’s because people in their networks have them,” Fontaine said. “I’m not sure whether it’s a close friend or a family member, but someone in the neighborhood has these guns, and young adults are reporting that if they need one, they can get one within hours by tapping into those networks.”

In the Urban Institute survey, when respondents were asked about what might keep young people from packing heat, the majority — 58 percent — agreed that having a well-paying job was a big factor. Large proportions also said young people wouldn’t carry guns if their friends didn’t either, or if they knew they would be arrested.