By: Punreet K. Bhatti, MD
My mom and I attended prayer on a Sunday afternoon. After lunch we gathered back into the prayer hall for “small chat”, my mom called it. I was sitting in a corner playing puzzles with my friend when we heard three gun shots. One of the elders quickly locked all four doors and covered the windows. All the mothers, including mine, clutched their children and started to pray. Half of our ‘congregation’ was in the food hall across from us. Minutes later I saw our ‘priest’ crouch down towards my friend’s mother and whisper in her ear. She proceeded to scream and cry hysterically. It was her husband. He became the victim in this tragic hate crime. That day no amount of prayer could’ve saved my friend’s father.
Each year, thousands of futures are erased by bullets and thousands more are derailed by injury. Firearm deaths and injuries affect about 125,000 Americans each year. At least 40% of children in high-violence urban neighborhoods have witnessed a shooting. The persistent threat of gun violence can contribute to elevated rates of PTSD among children. Furthermore, 3 million American children are exposed to gun violence annually and forced to cope with lifelong trauma.
In 2017, Chicago tallied more homicides than New York and Los Angeles combined. For children growing up in underserved communities of color, drive-by-shootings can be a daily and even hourly occurrence in some of Chicago’s neighborhoods. There is a constant mindset that “everyone is against me” especially if someone you love is shot and killed as an innocent bystander. In a survey conducted by the Urban Institute, young men in Chicago’s West and South Sides who had been shot or shot at in the past year were 3x more likely to report that they had carried a gun. However, more than half of the young men who reported carrying a gun experienced more victimization than those who reported never having carried a gun. These are the individuals who are most at risk of becoming a victim or perpetrator of gun violence. According to a new Illinois Violent Death Reporting System (IVDRS) report, 2017 firearm homicide rates among 15 to 19 year olds in Chicago were 20 per 100,000 compared to the United States which was 7.7 per 100,000. It is no wonder why 87% of Chicago parents mentioned neighborhood gun violence as their top social concern affecting Chicago youth today, according to a new report from Voices of Child Health in Chicago at Lurie Children’s.
The easy availability of guns in Chicago is understood to contribute to the city’s high levels of gun violence (City of Chicago 2017). We know from other research institutions that there is a correlation between states with strong gun laws and their gun deaths per capita. Every year, the Gifford’s Law Center tracks and grades states based on their gun law strength. In 2017 IL’s gun law strength was rated 8th and our gun death rate was rated 34th out of all 50 states. From January 1 to July 20, 2018, Chicago police recovered more than 5,100 illegal guns. Gun violence in Illinois is driven by trafficking from neighboring states with weak gun laws, such as Indiana (which has a D-) and Missouri (which has an F and is one of the 10 states with the worst gun death rates). Passing a gun dealer licensing law or an extreme risk protection order law would help Illinois raise its grade and save lives. And on January 17, 2019 IL Governor J.B. Pritzker did just that. Senate Bill 337, The Combating Illegal Gun Trafficking Act, was signed which will reduce the number of illegal guns and gun crime in Illinois by requiring background checks for gun shop employees, allowing law enforcement to inspect gun stores, and requiring video security to prevent theft.
I often go home to visit my family and friends, and on Sundays I attend prayer at the same place where the life of my friend’s father was taken away. Now my friend is married and has a young son who runs the hallway between the food and prayer hall. When I look at his son, I pray that he never has to experience what we did. But, I also think now more than ever, people feel a sense of personal involvement to make sure events like the one my friend witnessed or thousands of other children witness everyday do not happen again. More advocacy groups are forming, more funding for gun violence research is being approved, marches are taking place, and bills are being signed. For the first time in a long time I am hopeful and excited for the future of Chicago’s (and our nation’s) children.