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What’s Behind Chicago’s Murder Boom?

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McDonald v. Chicago was decided 5-4 in the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010. The majority opinion didn’t pull its punches: “Founding-era legal commentators confirmed the importance of the right to early Americans. St. George Tucker, for example, described the right to keep and bear arms as ‘the true palladium of liberty’ and explained that prohibitions on the right would place liberty ‘on the brink of destruction.’”

The majority opinion also determined: “Those who were fearful that the new Federal Government would infringe traditional rights such as the right to keep and bear arms insisted on the adoption of the Bill of Rights as a condition for ratification of the Constitution.”

Despite the win, McDonald’s battle with the city of Chicago didn’t end with the ruling. To sidestep the Supreme Court decision, Chicago quickly passed a new ordinance. City officials called the new law “the strictest in the nation.”

As it turns out, it is perhaps the stupidest. The measure prohibited gun stores from opening in Chicago and it prevented gun owners from so much as stepping outside their homes with a handgun. It even prevented residents from using a firearm on their porches or in their garages.

That’s right, the law actually explained where you could and couldn’t defend your life—though precisely what a “porch” is under the law will have to be answered. Does screened-in count? How about windows with an air conditioner?

Since passing that ordinance in 2010, Chicago has been forced to allow residents to purchase handguns, although to do so residents must navigate onerous restrictions and pay fees. Many of those restrictions are now being challenged in NRA-supported litigation, currently pending before the U.S. district court in Chicago. Chicago residents still can’t carry handguns for personal protection. That, too, is being challenged in court. The city is resistant to getting out of the way of the constitutional freedom protected by the Bill of Rights. This, as you’ll see, is part of the reason for its high murder rate.

Why the Murder Rate is Rising

Neither Emanuel nor McCarthy will look into the fact that, as economist John Lott showed in his seminal book “More Guns, Less Crime,” violent crime rates tend to go down when more people are able to protect themselves with guns. This is intellectually lazy and dishonest of them; after all, they have a lot of recent examples and empirical studies from which to choose.

Just consider that in the 2008 Heller decision, the Supreme Court struck down Washington, D.C.’s handgun ban and gun lock requirements. When the Heller case was decided, Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty warned, “More handguns in the District of Columbia will only lead to more handgun violence.” Knowing that Chicago’s gun laws would soon face a similar legal challenge, Chicago Mayor Daley was also vocal—the day the Heller decision was handed down, he said he was “outraged” and claimed people “are going to take a gun and they are going to end their lives in a family dispute.”

Despite these predictions, the mayhem never arrived.

Murders in Washington, D.C., plummeted by an astounding 25 percent in 2009, dropping from 186 murders in 2008 to 140. That translates to a murder rate that fell to 23.5 per 100,000 people—Washington’s lowest since 1967. In fact, while other cities have also fared well recently, D.C.’s drop was several times greater than that for other similar-sized cities, determined Lott.

Washington, D.C., didn’t succumb to Wild West shootouts, and Chicago wouldn’t either.

Actually, Washington, D.C.’s drop in violent crime shouldn’t surprise anyone who follows how crime rates change after gun bans have been imposed. Washington’s murder rate rose from 12 percent above the average for the 50 most populous cities in 1976 to 35 percent above the average in 1986.

“Washington’s murder rate soared after its handgun ban went into effect in early 1977,” Lott determined. “There is only one year while the ban was in effect that the murder rate fell below the 1976 number and that happened many years later—in 1985.”

Similarly, Chicago’s murder rate also rose after the Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld its ban on new handguns in 1982. Over the 19 years following the ban, there were only three years where the murder rate was as low as it was in 1982. As shown in Lott’s third-edition of “More Guns, Less Crime,” before the ban, Chicago’s murder rate was falling relative to the nine other largest cities, but after the ban Chicago’s murder rate rose relative to other cities.

Meanwhile, Lott’s findings that shall-issue laws (a “shall-issue” jurisdiction is one where a person must obtain a permit to carry a concealed handgun, but where the granting of such permits is subject only to meeting established criteria) tend to reduce crime rates have been controversial with some in the media and in academia, but his analysis has been backed up by peer-reviewed studies.

A study by Carlisle E. Moody and Thomas B. Marvell that was published in Econ Journal Watch in January 2009 looked into Lott’s findings. It determined, “Many articles have been published finding that shall-issue laws reduce crime. Only one article, by Ayres and Donohue who employ a model that combines a dummy variable with a post-law trend, claims to find that shall-issue laws increase crime. However, the only way that they can produce the result that shall-issue laws increase crime is to confine the span of analysis to five years. We show, using their own estimates, that if they had extended their analysis by one more year, they would have concluded that these laws reduce crime.”

In the majority opinion for McDonald, the Supreme Court also morally indicted Chicago’s leaders. The opinion noted: “[The] number of Chicago homicide victims during the current year equaled the number of American soldiers killed during that same period in Afghanistan and Iraq … 80 percent of the Chicago victims were black … If, as petitioners believe, their safety and the safety of other law-abiding members of the community would be enhanced by the possession of handguns in the home for self-defense, then the Second Amendment right protects the rights of minorities and other residents of high-crime areas whose needs are not being met by elected public officials.”

Despite all of the statistical examples and lives saved around the U.S., Emanuel and McCarthy still blame Chicago’s murder rate on less restrictive gun laws in other states. They don’t care that even the experiences of island nations that have banned handguns follow the same trend.

“When handgun bans were enacted in Ireland and Jamaica in 1972 and 1974, respectively, murder rates doubled over the following decade,” Lott reported. “And take the more recent example in England and Wales, where handguns were banned in 1997: deaths and injuries from gun crime more than doubled over the next seven years.”

I recently asked Lott what he would do about the high murder rate and high gun violence rate if he were mayor of Chicago.

“First of all, [I would] give law-abiding people the ability to protect themselves in public and in their homes,” he said.

Next, he noted that Chicago’s police department has shrunk. He would change that by cutting elsewhere to fund the hiring of new officers—he actually outlines this in his book Freedomnomics.

“Also, sources have told me McCarthy has broken up the police force’s gang units and moved officers around the city. This is a mistake as it takes years for them to get to know who the good and bad guys are on any given street.”

This includes the street where 7-year-old Heaven Sutton was gunned down last June while she sold candy and snow cones with her mother and other family members. Heaven had just gotten her hair done for an upcoming trip to Disney World.

The shots were fired by a gang member trying to kill a rival. The gang member lived, but Heaven didn’t.

Stopping gang violence and making city streets safe again is a complex and difficult job. But neither Emanuel nor McCarthy will consider getting out of the way of residents’ constitutional freedoms, thereby letting the people be equal citizens on their own streets.

Otis McDonald learned this. He became the lead plaintiff in the Chicago case because he simply wanted to exercise the same rights enjoyed by Emanuel and McCarthy.

If more people realize that more personal freedom would help solve the growing problem on Chicago’s murderous streets, then Chicago could follow the path of other American cities to lower violent crime rates.

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