Cover Story

Loaded questions

"Loaded questions" Continued...

Issue: "Maximum insecurity," Feb. 23, 2013

Levy successfully argued the Supreme Court case in 2008 that overturned a ban on most handguns in Washington, D.C. During the 32-year ban, gun violence and homicides in the district soared, as criminals maintained their arsenals, and many law-abiding citizens went unarmed. The court’s 2008 decision underscored citizens’ Second Amendment rights to keep and bear arms.

Jeffrey Shapiro, a former prosecutor in D.C., notes since the court struck down the gun ban, murders in D.C. dropped from 186 in 2008 to 88 in 2012—the lowest number of homicides since the district enacted the gun ban in 1976.

Gun advocates fear their Second Amendment rights are in danger, but despite intense national debate, the most controversial legislation—like banning assault weapons and limiting high capacity magazines—faces an uphill battle in Congress. For all the talk, little may happen.

Meanwhile, in urban areas across the country, chaos and carnage continue with fleeting national attention.

Take Chicago. Though crime in the city has declined overall, homicides are up. The city’s murder count reached 500 last year—the highest since 2008. (That’s still far lower than a peak of 900 murders a year during the early 1990s.)

Last month was brutal: 42 murders in 31 days—the deadliest January in more than a decade. On Jan. 12, gunmen killed two boys, ages 14 and 15, in separate shootings.

Officials say much of Chicago’s violence is gang-related, but it sometimes claims innocent victims: Seven-year-old Heaven Sutton died last June after suffering a gunshot wound in her front yard. Hadiya Pendleton, 15, died from a gunshot wound in a Chicago park on Jan. 29—a week after performing as a majorette at President Obama’s inauguration.

The violence continues despite the city’s stringent gun laws: Though there are no gun shops in the city limits, police seized more than 7,400 guns employed in crimes or unauthorized use last year.

Phil Jackson sees those crimes regularly. The associate pastor at Lawndale Community Church has lived in Chicago’s poverty-stricken Lawndale community for nearly 20 years.

Jackson offers a running list of neighborhood violence: A man shot two blocks from the church while helping a woman being robbed; a 20-year-old man from the church gunned down at a grocery store; a member of the youth group who survived being shot in the back seven times.

The pastor says the violence permeates life in the neighborhood: The church shuts down the gym at 8:30 p.m. so children can get home safely. The community has few sit-down restaurants because law-abiding patrons worry about coming out late at night.

Jackson says lots of problems fuel gangs and guns: Poverty, fatherlessness, failing schools, and a lack of opportunities. A whole housing project is dedicated to grandparents raising grandkids.

When he talks about solutions, Jackson mentions the church’s expansive programs like affordable housing, a healthcare clinic, job training, and Saturday night youth outreach.

But he mostly emphasizes relationships rooted in demonstrating the gospel. When we talked by phone, Jackson was preparing to pick up a gang member who told the pastor he wants to find a job and a new way of life: “That didn’t happen because I met him the other day,” says Jackson. “That happened over years—taking him to breakfast, seeing him in the neighborhood, talking to him on the street.”

Jackson says the process is slow and methodical, and it often takes years: “These relationships come with longevity and consistency. … They need to see the light of Christ in the darkest areas of their lives.”

In the 8th Ward of New Orleans, J.B. Watkins faces plenty of darkness. The pastor of St. Roch Community Church came to the inner-city neighborhood in 2007.

He’s seen deep sorrow in a short time. The 33-year-old graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary has buried three young people killed by gun violence in the last five years: Two teenage boys and a young woman who was a victim of domestic violence. The parents of one of the boys had already lost another son to gun violence.

It’s a sadly common tale in New Orleans—a city with the highest per capita murder rate in the country. Violence, poverty, and fatherlessness have longed plagued the parts of the city, even before Hurricane Katrina destroyed whole swaths of poor neighborhoods in 2005.

These days, pre-Katrina problems continue, says Watkins: “You hear gunshots daily. … It’s wild in many ways.” Patterns of systemic corruption among some police officers and city officials deepen the woes.

Effective policing has proven hugely successful in other urban areas. New York City enjoyed an 80 percent drop in homicides over the last two decades. Criminologists largely attribute the dip to efforts led by William Bratton, the city’s police chief from 1994 to 1996.

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