Can Biden plan stem epidemic of gun violence in Chicago?

President Obama has unveiled the most sweeping proposal to curb gun violence in generations. Will this combination of executive orders … Continued

President Obama has unveiled the most sweeping proposal to curb gun violence in generations.

Will this combination of executive orders and proposed new legislation, a product of a month of work by an interagency task force led by Vice President Biden, be able to help reduce the rate of deaths from gun violence in President Obama’s own home town of Chicago?

Chicago hit a grim milestone in 2012: 500 murders in one year, the worst in the nation. For Chicago, this works out to one Newtown, Conn., massacre nearly every two weeks, or one Aurora, Colo., movie theatre massacre nearly every week. There were 151 victims of mass shootings in the United States in 2012. For Chicago, that’s equivalent to approximately the first quarter of 2012; in 2013, Chicago is already ahead of the murder rate of 2012.

This is a plague, an epidemic of gun-related violence that should be understood as a public health crisis according to CeaseFire. That organization was founded by Gary Slutkin, who spent a decade combatting cholera and AIDS in Africa. Located at the University of Illinois School of Public Health, this program is founded on the idea that the spread of violence mimics the spread of infectious diseases. The infection must be stopped at its source; it must be interrupted.

The Interrupters” is an award-winning film about the program to “interrupt” violence at its source that was launched by CeaseFire. Those shown in the film and those who run the program are certainly inspiring and courageous people, working the streets to try to interrupt the spread of the infection of violence.

Yet, despite this courageous work, Chicago’s murder rate increases.

This is a plague that cannot be successfully interrupted without getting the guns, as that is how the infection grows and spreads. Just like dealing with a plague, you have to also confront the carriers of violence. A groundbreaking study by University of Chicago Crime Lab researchers shows that Chicago gangs don’t have to go far to get guns. The guns are trafficked into our Chicago communities like fleas jumping off rats and causing spreading the plague as happened in the Middle Ages in Europe.

Comprehensive national gun legislation is needed now. No community should be left to battle this plague on their own. Assault weapons should be banned, along with high capacity magazines. Criminal background checks for every gun purchase should be mandatory, and I believe gun sellers should be required to report their sales to law enforcement. Tracing guns that are used in crimes is crucial to stemming the gun flow to criminals.

But we’ve simply got to reduce the number of guns already in our communities. Los Angeles, Calif., did a one-day buy back of guns and netted 2,037 firearms, including 75 assault weapons and a rocket launcher. Crime, including murder, is down again in Los Angeles. Get the guns, get safer cities, towns and communities. This works.

Getting the guns and eliminating deaths from gun-related violence is not merely a practical problem. It is also a moral problem. A country that can tolerate this many thousands and thousands of gun deaths every year and not act decisively to end it is losing its capacity for moral judgment.

In the early 1990’s I was a theological consultant to the Carter Center in Atlanta for a project that became known as “Not Even One.” The number of deaths and injuries of children from gun violence had been identified by the Carter Center as a crisis. The project was designed to work with communities to prevent the child injuries and deaths from gun violence. This project also used a community health model.

In the first meetings, we discussed a “threshold” of violence. What was our ultimate goal in the reduction of the deaths of children from gun violence?

Those at the meeting looked at each other and realized that there is no such threshold. There is no acceptable number of deaths of children from gun violence.

“Not Even One” became the title and the moral touchstone of that project.

For the United States, ‘not even one’ death from gun violence is acceptable. That’s the moral standard to which we need to hold one another in this so-called “debate.”

There’s no debate, there is only the moral imperative to stop it.

This post has been updated.


Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is Professor of Theology and immediate past President of Chicago Theological Seminary. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Her most recent books are "#OccupytheBible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power" and, as contributor and editor, "Interfaith Just Peacemaking: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on the New Paradigm of Peace and War."
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