Saving our city’s children from gunfire will take a long and relentless commitmentCST Editorial Boardon June 9, 2021 at 10:47 pm

Seized guns are displayed during a press conference at the Chicago Police Department headquarters on Oct. 28, 2020. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

It could hardly be more tragic that the violent deaths of children is spiking even after years upon years of one police strategy after another, of one social program after another.

The front page of Tuesday’s Chicago Sun-Times could hardly have been more grim. Our city’s children are losing their lives to gunfire at a rate three times faster than last year.

It could hardly be more tragic that the violent deaths of children in Chicago is spiking even after years upon years of one police strategy after another, of one social program after another, of anti-violence funding that has started and funding that has stopped.

Children keep dying, shot sitting in a car in a McDonald’s drive-thru, shot visiting from out of town, shot at a West Pullman gas station. According to a Chicago Sun-Times analysis of shooting and homicide data, of the more than 1,500 shooting victims in Chicago this year, at least 53 were 15 or younger, compared with 43 last year. Of the 233 shooting victims 18 and younger, 34 died.

Eleven children lost their lives to gunfire in May, eight in April, five in March, two in February and five in January. After the Sun-Times story appeared, a 9-year-old boy was shot in the cheek while playing outside a home in Back of the Yards on Tuesday evening.

The toll rends the heart.

Caught in the crossfire

Many of the children who are being killed are not the intended targets, but are just caught up in crossfire. To protect them will require an all-out — and sustained — effort to reduce shootings in the city.

The higher numbers of shootings, both overall and those of children, should upset anybody. It may be tempting to dismiss urban violence, the shootings and killings, as gang members shooting other gang members. But we can’t fool ourselves. When so many innocent kids are being shot and killed, there is no excuse not to care.

We also would argue that no young person should be written off as irredeemable.

We have written about this many times, to the point that we find it frustrating. But we know there are, in fact, at least partial solutions that work: Summer jobs, jobs in general, summer programs for kids, after-school programs, police strategies of proven effectiveness. And we have to keep pushing. We have no choice.

To give up on all this is to give up on kids like the 14-year-old girl who was gunned down on June 2 after her attackers asked her if she was in a gang.

Things that work

Illinois’ $42.3 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year includes money for violence prevention programs such as after-school activities, and summer youth employment. It’s not enough — it’s never enough — but the idea is exactly right, which is to give kids something to grab onto, a rope that can lift them out of a life surrounded by violence. We need to offer young people more good choices and not as many bad choices. We need to do a better job of keeping guns out of the hands of those who shouldn’t have them.

As an example of what can work, there is the Heartland Alliance’s Rapid Employment and Development Initiative, which connects Chicago men, most of whom have been shot or arrested, to intensive programming, jobs or job training and trauma-informed supports. Preliminary results of a study of the program, by the University of Chicago Crime Lab, show that participants are 40% less likely to be victims of gun homicides or shootings.

We need to invest in communities and create safe spaces. People who have lived through one shooting after another are traumatized.

In it for the long term

Short-term programs or police crackdowns won’t be sufficient. Better schools, summer jobs, summer programs for kids, after-school programs, violence interruption efforts, jobs programs and other initiatives need to be in place over a long period — years and decades — until their cumulative effect makes a difference.

“You may need to get a generation of people through good programs before you start to get traction,” said Maryann Mason, director of violence and injury research at the Buehler Center for Health Policy and Economics at Northwestern University.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, firearm targets have been a little older on average, Mason said, and the older they are — say 25 to 30 years old — the more likely they are to have children with them.

At the same time, police say, gang members are less concerned about young children getting caught between them and their targets. Partly that’s because gangs have splintered into smaller units and no one is enforcing a street code that says gang members should never shoot a child.

Triumphing over gun violence is a long game. We cannot quit.

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