By Nikita Mandhani, Satvika Khera and Yingxu Hao
As President Barack Obama called for stricter gun laws during the annual conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) at McCormick Place Tuesday, tourists at the Chicago Cultural Center said they were well-aware of and worried about gun violence in Chicago.
Peggy Georne, a resident of Streator, Illinois, said she felt much safer in Chicago when she used to visit in the 1970s.
“We walked long stretches and it was safe,” said Georne, who often visits her grandson in the city. She said that she advises people against coming to Chicago because of the number of murders and shootings she hears about in the news.
Homicides in Chicago have actually decreased in those decades, from 796 in 1970 to 437 in 2010, according to the Chicago Police Annual Report. There was a slight decrease in the per capita murder rate in those years, since the population dropped from around 3.4 million in 1970 to 2.7 million in 2010.
Scott Jones, a Chicagoan who now lives in New York City, noted that even in New York, Chicago’s struggle with gun violence is “everywhere in the news.”
“The housing projects in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, ‘70’s and ‘80’s really destroyed communities” in Chicago, he said. Jones attributed the violence to income inequality and segregation in Chicago that has confined different immigrants and races to certain neighborhoods. But when asked whether he felt safer in New York, he said the level of safety depends on the specific location regardless of the city.
Chicago Police Department (CPD) statistics demonstrate that shooting incidents in Chicago increased by 12 percent to 2,084 in 2014 from 1,866 in 2013, despite the fact that Illinois has put into effect a law mandating stricter background checks on firearms purchase since Jan. 1, 2014.
The law mandates a Firearm Owner’s Identification (FOID) card from Illinois state police before one can purchase a gun. Getting a card includes a screening of state criminal and mental health records.
Ton Boer, 54, from Holland did his research before coming to the city. After watching the national news coverage on Chicago, he realized that “some parts of the city are dangerous.”
Boer stays with an American family as part of an Airbnb arrangement. Based on discussions with his host and his observations, he feels that on the outskirts of the city, “the population changes, there is poverty and probably more crime.”
Some visitors said they are disturbed by seeing the “No Guns” signs at the entrances of many buildings and restaurants.
“Every time I see the gun sign with a cross, it makes me feel strange,” said Charu Gupta, who is from India and lives in Berlin. Her family was so anxious about violence during her vacation to the U.S., that she plans to “only visit downtown and the Indian area.”
Despite beefed up gun laws in Illinois, more illegal guns are pulled off the streets in Chicago than in any other major city, according to a statement made by Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy during a City Council hearing on Oct. 6.
According to a 2014 Chicago Police Department report, 60 percent of guns recovered in crimes in Chicago are coming from states with weaker gun laws. The report states that “the largest out-of-state sources of Chicago’s illegal guns were Indiana, Mississippi, and Wisconsin, which supplied 19 percent, 6.7 percent, and 3.6 percent of these crime guns, respectively.”
Tango Chatani, a visitor from Japan, is staying with a friend in Chicago who got a gun in New Orleans, where he used to live, after being threatened with a gun after a road accident. Chatani finds the story disturbing.
“In Japan, ordinary people can’t get guns. America is so big, that’s why people feel uneasy and scared,” he said.
Tourists said they hope different policies or laws can help Chicago reduce gun violence.
“Maybe more policing will help,” said Annie Eby, an urban policy researcher from Kansas. She stressed that economic opportunities for residents are also important to avoiding violence.
“When people have something to lose, if they have a life to care about, a job, a business or something, they are not likely to engage in risky behaviors like gun violence,” she said.