"Non-Violence" by Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd Credit: Maria Lysenko via Unsplash

Gun violence across the nation, and especially here in Chicago, seems to be all we see on the news.

Politicians like Darren Bailey, the Republican nominee for Illinois governor, would have you believe that gun violence is right outside your door. But gun violence is not evenly distributed across the entire city. Instead, it is concentrated in neighborhoods that experience many forms of disadvantage, from poverty to segregation, food and job deserts, and rampant unemployment. 

Would it surprise you to know that Illinois has some of the strictest firearms laws in the country? According to Everytown USA, Illinois is the sixth-strongest state for gun laws, due to its state-mandated background checks, laws keeping guns away from domestic abusers, and “red flag” laws. And the state’s firearm-enhancement penalties can add 15 to 25 years to sentences. I fail to see how our gun laws could get much tougher.

For decades, American policies have been driven by the idea that bad behavior is caused by bad people. This led to the tough-on-crime politics of the 1990s, which in turn led to the construction of the world’s largest prison system. The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country. This legacy comes at a ruinous cost to our society, especially in Black and Brown communities.

In 2006, while sentencing William Lang to seven years for aggravated unlawful use of a weapon, a Cook County Circuit Court trial judge said, “I don’t understand what I or society gains by putting you in prison for possession of a weapon. If I thought it was going to deter you or anybody else, it might make sense. But I’m fully aware that what I do to you is going to be zero effect on anyone else out there carrying a weapon.”

In 2016, dozens of organizations signed onto a report entitled Building a Safe Chicago: Calling for a Comprehensive Plan, which noted, “In recent years, our state has increased penalties for firearm possession six times, instituting new mandatory minimum sentences. As a result, the number of Illinoisans incarcerated for possessing a weapon in violation of licensing laws tripled, while arrests remained flat. Consistent with research showing that sentence severity is unlikely to deter violent crime, homicide rates fell no faster here than they did in states which had not increased such sentences—and seem to have increased at a faster pace.” 

Obviously, being more punitive doesn’t work.

As a crime prevention measure, firearm enhancements are useless—and a colossal waste of taxpayer money. Harsher penalties are reactive, and they’re lazy politics. There is, however, a growing concern about what, if anything, can be done. 

Shootings are rare on the more affluent north side, but not on the poorer west and south sides. Black and Brown Chicagoans are most likely to be the victims of shootings, and poverty can explain part of the disparity. But make no mistake, individual poverty is not the full explanation. Exclusionary housing policies and discrimination have pushed Black and Brown people into segregated neighborhoods, and segregation remains significant in Chicago. Both the government and the private sector have neglected Black and Brown neighborhoods, leaving people without good schools, banks, grocery stores, and other neighborhood institutions.

The government tends to disengage from urban issues, and respond with punitive policies that exacerbate the problems therein. This approach is characterized by abandonment, disinvestment, and punishment. “That’s no coincidence,” says Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here, a 1992 book about the lives of two boys in the now-demolished Henry Horner Homes, and producer of The Interrupters, a documentary about violence-mediation workers. “That’s no coincidence. We’ve got to recommit ourselves to finding ways to fortify and rebuild these communitieseasy—all the obvious things, which is affordable housing, accessible health care, better schools, community centers. That’s the part that drives me crazy. All the things we already know but we’re unable or unwilling to address it in a really robust manner.”

In 2019, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced the creation of a Memorial Day violence-
reduction program called Our City, Our Safety, which she expanded in 2020 to year-round citywide gun-violence reduction. However, South Side Weekly reported that in May 2020, the Chicago Police Department began using the city’s gun-violence prevention center to surveil political demonstrations against everything from police brutality to gun violence itself, and since then the Our City, Our Safety initiative has apparently existed as little more than an online dashboard.

Our national urban policy cannot be neglect and disinvestment; it must be investment and help. You don’t often hear this from today’s politicians-—they take the easy way out and scream about punishment. Politicians love the status quo: it favors them, gives them a platform and agenda, while seemingly allowing them to actually accomplish next to nothing for their constituents. Punishment has been the most consistent response to the challenges of urban crime, violence, and poverty. All you have to do is look at your news every night to see that it has been a failure.

Harsh penalties such as eliminating parole, so-called truth in sentencing, and mandatory gun-enhancement penalties, combined with more aggressive policing and prosecution, trap more and more Black and Brown people into the criminal legal system.

Instead of punishment, the focus has to shift to the fundamental root causes—poverty, segregation, disinvestment, and the widespread availability of guns to people who shouldn’t have them.

I freely admit that I don’t come armed with all the answers to this complex problem. However, I have eyes, and even I can see that if Illinois’s tough gun laws do not help, punishment is a failed strategy. And I can also see some of the answers, such as addressing root problems like poverty and disinvestment, that could help. How is it that our elected officials can’t think of any answers to address one of the biggest issues in the state? 

We must demand real answers from those who want our vote. Stricter penalties do not work, as we can all plainly see. If politicians can’t come up with honest answers and solutions to the root problem of violence, don’t give them your vote! The status quo only helps them. We must demand more.

Anthony Ehlers is a writer incarcerated at Stateville Correctional Center who contributes a regular column to the Reader.