Americans were appalled when a man with a military-style rifle entered an Orlando gay nightclub on June 12 and began firing. By the time police killed him, he had murdered 49 people and wounded 53. It was one of the worst mass shootings the country has ever seen — a spectacular attack from a killer who said he was driven by Islamist militancy.
In the days afterward, Americans asked how such slaughter can happen and what it says about the nation’s character. Massacres carried out by lone gunmen, an increasingly common event, have become a signature horror of our time.
But in Chicago, another type of bloodshed occurred that weekend, without much notice except to those directly affected by it or living on streets where it occurred. By the time the weekend was over, 30 people had been shot — one every 96 minutes — and four of them were dead.
That wasn’t an especially violent weekend here. It was more or less the norm for this time of year, when warm temperatures pull people outdoors, increasing the chances of vicious encounters.
Thus far in 2016, at least 1,950 people have been hit by bullets in Chicago, including most of the more than 325 homicide victims. “We have an Orlando every month in Chicago, and no one seems to raise an eyebrow,” Dean Angelo, president of Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police, said the other day.
Those are sobering numbers. But they’re just numbers. The reality behind them is terror, agony and soul-shredding grief. The deaths erase the lives of some Chicagoans and leave others with pain, fear and regret that will never go away.
Most of those struck down are young men in poor neighborhoods plagued by gangs, where minor disputes can turn deadly in an instant and bystanders can be hit at random. The dead and wounded are the victims of a volatile mix of social and economic toxins, inflamed by the easy availability of firearms.
It’s hard to come up with measures that can prevent a determined person who has not committed a previous crime from obtaining guns and targeting a public venue to kill as many people as he can. It’s easier to devise policies that stand a reasonable chance of reducing violence by making it harder for criminals to get the deadly weapons they want.
Omar Mateen, the Orlando killer, passed a federal background check to buy his guns. But felons may evade such requirements by purchasing from private sellers, who unlike licensed dealers aren’t required to do background checks. They may work with straw purchasers, who buy firearms legally and then sell them illegally. Requiring background checks for all gun sales and stiffening penalties for straw purchasers could curb this sort of activity, raising the risks and costs for those doing business with criminals.
Need proof? A 2013 federal gun trafficking case found one man who bought 43 guns from gun shows and stores in Indiana, which has looser gun laws than Illinois, before bringing them to Chicago and selling them to an undercover agent. One defendant, a prosecutor said in court, “would go travel to Indiana, to these gun shows where he would load up literally a duffel bag, go from table to table paying in cash, large amounts of cash … before returning right into the worst neighborhoods of Chicago.”
No one expects such changes in gun laws to make a big difference or a rapid one. But they are likely to do some good — with minimal inconvenience to law-abiding gun buyers.
Illinois lawmakers also could make a difference by tightening this state’s notoriously light sentences for several categories of repeat felony gun offenders. A move in Springfield to do that flopped in late 2013 because African-American lawmakers were concerned that increased incarceration would ill-serve their communities.
As if the rising tide of young lives snuffed by gunfire doesn’t ill-serve their communities.
In this especially violent year, the Fourth of July weekend opens with the dread of even more bloodshed. In both 2014 and 2015, it was the deadliest weekend of the year. Last year, 70 people were shot in Chicago over the three-day Fourth weekend, including nine who died. And shootings have been up every month this year compared with the same month in 2015.
The nation won’t forget the shock of what happened in Orlando last month. But the carnage that goes on all the time here is tragically susceptible to being ignored.
We have an Orlando every month in Chicago, and no one seems to raise an eyebrow.
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