The Truth About Chicago's Falling Murder Rate

Fox ChicagoThe recent bloody headlines out of Chicago relayed the sad tale of the city's deadly weekend, where seven people were killed in shootings and more than 50 were victims of gunfire. Thanks in part to news coverage, America's third largest city has become synonymous with runaway gun violence, and especially deadly weekend shootouts.

Sadly, that type of shooting spree isn't restricted to Chicago. Just this month in New York City, which has experienced an historic reduction in crime in recent years, 25 people were shot over a single weekend; six of the victims died.

Nonetheless, the Chicago news triggered the usual response from conservative gun advocates, who love to mock the city's homicide rate. In recent years Chicago gun victims have served as a macabre punch line for NRA fans as they scoff at the alleged futility of the city's gun safety laws. (Chicago banned handguns decades ago, and has retained strong gun laws following the 2010 overturning of that ban by the Supreme Court.)

Conservative conspiracists such as Rush Limbaugh even claim Democratic politicians, including Chicago's mayor Rahm Emanuel, want the city's murder rate to remain high so they can use the killings to advocate for stronger gun laws.

But mostly, firearm defenders simply ridicule Chicago's murder count. “Slaughter in Gun Control Chicago,” blogged Fox News contributor Katie Pavlich in the wake of last weekend's gun attacks, while a Breitbart writer on Monday insisted city officials had “little to show” for their efforts to curb violence.  

But note what these commentators are careful not to mention while using the killings to make a political point: They didn't mention that homicides in “Gun Control Chicago” are down dramatically this year; a trend that undermines the attack that the Second City stands as the ultimate symbol of gun enforcement failure.

In early May, the Chicago Police Department released figures indicating the city marked a 43 percent decline in the number of murders over the first four months of this year, as compared to the same period last year. For the first quarter of this year, Chicago registered 93 murders, its lowest January-to-April tally since 1963.

Then this month came news that Chicago experienced a 31 percent decrease in shootings for the month of May, which meant that through May of this year the city's murder count had declined 34 percent from last year. Chicago homicides still outnumber those in larger cities, such as New York and Los Angeles; it suffers from weaker gun laws in both its home state and surrounding states than those two cities, allowing criminals easier access to guns purchased elsewhere.

It's true that Chicago's crime is certain to spike in the coming summer months, and with it will come more heartbreaking headlines about tragic gun murders; killings that will inevitably involve young victims. But statistically, violent crime almost always goes up in warm weather months.  So the question is, will Chicago's murder rate go up more this year than during last year's summer months? Or will the city be able to maintain its pattern of reduced gun violence throughout 2013?

Skeptics say no, and point to the amount of overtime Chicago has already paid police officers this year to flood the city's most dangerous neighborhoods with more personnel. When that overtime budget dries up homicides numbers will rebound, predicted Justin Peters at Slate this month.

Time will tell. In the meantime though, there's been surprisingly little media discussion about whether Chicago's strict gun laws, routinely ridiculed by the right-wing, might actually be working. And as police continue to take thousands and thousands of guns off the streets (nearly 3,000 already this year), whether that policy has directly led to fewer killings. President Obama's "conservative critics" insist gun control efforts don't affect the crime rate.

Note the press coverage: On January 29, a New York Times headline read, “Strict Gun Laws in Chicago Can't Stem Fatal Shots.” The article detailed the city's gun laws, which make it illegal to sell firearms or to possess assault weapons, and contrasted that with Chicago's murder count in 2012.

Then on June 11, The New York Times reported on Chicago's sharply declining number of homicides through the first five months of this year. But the article never addressed the issue of gun confiscations or gun laws. So in January, the Times claimed gun laws weren't curbing violence in the Windy City. Then in June, when statistics indicated Chicago's homicides had declined precipitously, the Times ignored the possibility that gun safety efforts might be one reason why.

It is notoriously difficult to determine why crime rises and falls. But to effectively blame a policy when rates rise and ignore it when they drop doesn't make sense.

Meanwhile, much was made in the media last year about the fact that more than 500 people were killed in Chicago, with the "shocking" mark treated as a stunning demarcation line. (Of the 500-plus homicides, 443 were gun-related killings.) And for gun advocates, the number served as proof gun laws are bound to fail. Missing from the 500 coverage however, was some important context.

Fact: In 1992, nearly 950 people were killed in Chicago. Ten years later that number had fallen, but the homicide count still stood at 656.

Gun chart 

Note that the 433 homicides in Chicago in 2011 were the fewest in two decades, although you certainly wouldn't know that from the media's coverage of Chicago crime in recent years, or the right-wing media's constant attacks on Chicago's gun policies.  

And now comes news that it's possible (possible) Chicago will register the fewest hometown homicides since John F. Kennedy was president. How does that square with the media's portrayal of Chicago as a lawless city, and the far-right claims that gun laws do no good?