Life After The Bullet: The Big and Small of Chicago’s Gun Violence Epidemic

By Peter Rubinstein

4,379 shots were fired in Chicago during 2016. 3,662 of them struck and wounded a victim. 717 of those bullets were lethal, according to data from A father, mother, sister, child, grandparent or friend was shot in the city every two hours and nine minutes. One was killed every 11 hours.

But despite last year’s harrowing figures – which culminated into one of the deadliest periods in the city’s history – the numbers coming from 2017 already are more severe. Deaths by guns are up 20% from April of 2016; the total amount of gunshot victims increased 2%. Homicide statistics in the city are 20% higher than this time last year, and the most fatal months have yet to arrive.

Chicago’s devastating gun violence epidemic remains popular among local and national headlines alike, its most recent spike in attention coming from President Trump himself.

“Can you believe what’s happening in Chicago?” he said during a February speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference. “What is going on there – totally out of control. Chicago needs help!”

What often escapes the media flurry, however, are the real stories of individuals and families on the front lines.

Through a series of interviews collected in some of the city’s most affected neighborhoods from January to April, the picture that emerges is one of gun violence survivors who, despite their second chance, do not see sufficient improvement on the horizon.

Pariss Goins, 20-year veteran of Chicago’s gang culture and four-time gunshot victim, said the turning point towards today’s system of violence occurred in the ‘90s when the area’s gang chiefs were sent to Supermax prisons across the country. Before their departure, he said, the gangs operated under strict codes of honor enforced by leaders from within local jails.

Now, Goins said the gangs have splintered into independent, hostile groups that draw more inspiration from rap videos than veterans who came before them. Drive-by shootings and the murder of innocent bystanders have become the norm.

As he waits to return to prison for the third time for a drug distribution charge, Goins said, his hope for the future of gun violence in Chicago remains dim. Until the city’s rogue gangs establish peace and order between them, the death tolls will continue to rise, he said.

“It’s going to stay the same until someone in one of these mobs get together with someone in another mob, and they sit down and put some structure in these shorties,” he said.

The sentiment was echoed by Diane Latiker, founder of youth violence prevention program Kids Off the Block, during a phone interview from her South Side home office. Despite her organization’s effort to educate and nurture Chicago youth, she said, the lack of sufficient financial support from government programs and businesses is a fixed roadblock against real improvement for their future.

“Until economic investment is real, like people really get it that these families need economic support; that the young people coming up need real job training and lifetime skills – not a summer job – then I think that not much will change,” she said.

Instead, Latiker said, children who grow up in gang territory are often targeted by the groups as potential recruits. Many fail in school and shift their focus toward violence as part of their initiation, effectively continuing the cycle in-part responsible for the city’s yearly gunshot toll, she said.

In spite of the strides taken by individuals like Latiker and Chicago’s resident, frock-wearing “Brother Jim” to combat violence on the city’s South and West Sides, 2017 remains as another deadly period.

947 shooting victims have already been logged from January 1 to May 2, according to the Chicago Tribune. 887 were wounded and 183 were killed, an report says,  equaling a gunshot-related death every 15 hours and 18 minutes. Out of all the recorded homicides recorded this year, 94% were caused by guns.

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As the numbers rise, branches of affected families and individuals will continue to stretch and split. For gunshot survivors like Donya Smith, Jammie King and Jonathan “J-Mac” Evans, the personal effects of the city’s violence epidemic will hang over them for the rest of their lives.

Each victim said they carry a piece of their past with them today, whether in the form of a chest-length scar, a son who narrowly escaped death or a newfound dedication to violence prevention organizations. Smith, King and Evans now stand as living representations of future generations destined to suffer the same trauma within Chicago’s lethal climate.

As the city now inches closer towards the warmer months, when the highest increase in weekly shootings traditionally occurs, hope among affected residents remains wrenchingly scarce. Past the statistics, headlines and weekly reviews of victims and totals, life goes on for the men, women and children who call the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city “home.”



Images via Chicago Tribune, Chuckman Chicago Nostalgia

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