Homicides in Chicago attracted national media attention early this summer when 7-year-old Heaven Sutton became the city’s 251st fatality, killed by a random bullet while operating her front-lawn candy stand on the city’s West Side. Mayor Emanuel and police superintendent Garry McCarthy blamed the growing violence on neighborhood gang factions, which they say are responsible for 80 percent of the shootings.
Gang factions are small groups that have splintered from the monolithic, often historic, crime organizations that date back decades. As many as 600 factions exist today, the Chicago Police Department says. Moreover, Chicago has surpassed Los Angeles in total gang membership and activity, crime experts say.
Much of the action that the city has taken this year has tried to take down gangs: Some 250 vacant buildings were demolished because they were considered gathering places for gangs, the police department partnered with antiviolence group CeaseFire to increase conflict mediation on the streets, and McCarthy has initiated a new system to assess turf affiliations to prevent retaliation shootings.
However, focusing solely on gangs is misguided, says Mr. Williams, among others who study crime. He says the shootings are often random, interpersonal, or petty.
“Guns are definitely a problem; gangs, absolutely not,” he says. “These are kids who, over the last 10 years or so, have been extremely marginalized, and this is their response to that marginalization. They feel stuck with a lot of rage. They can clearly see people in other neighborhoods making a lot of progress and being mobile, but they feel stuck in their communities and feel afraid. And because they have easy access to guns, it’s a form of desperation.”