Friday, February 8th, 2013

Why Are There So Many Murders in Chicago?

My latest blog post is online over at New Geography. It is called “Why Are There So Many Murders in Chicago?” In it I take a look at why Chicago has so many murders compared to other large global cities.

Some commenters already pushed back saying that there are lots of cities with higher murder rates. Perhaps true. But do you really want to say that Chicago’s peer group is made up of places like Detroit, Flint and St. Louis? After all, Chicago aspires to be an elite global city, and it is against other elite global cities by which it should be judged. Thus places like New York and LA are the right peer group.

I don’t claim to know the exact answers, but I explore some possibilities related to policing, demographics, and housing policy. Whatever the case, Chicago would be well served to do some detailed comparative analysis to figure out what it needs to do differently to stem the murder tide given that there appears to be little progress being made through the current approach. (This January was the deadliest in over a decade, for example).

One item I know I mis-worded. Talking about the NYT piece, my intent was to say that Chicago’s gun laws are pretty tough and broadly comparable to NYC and LA, and so you can’t blame Chicago’s murders on differences in gun policies. That doesn’t mean Chicago and America can’t do better when it comes to guns, but to blame gun laws is really just blame shifting by people who don’t want to take responsibility for what’s going on on the streets of Chicago.

Topics: Public Policy, Public Safety, Urban Culture
Cities: Chicago

20 Responses to “Why Are There So Many Murders in Chicago?”

  1. Matthew Hall says:

    Crime fills the spaces not filled by legitimate activity. The loss of hundreds of thousands of people from the south side of chicago left a huge void that criminals are competing to fill. Chicago has paid a high price for the success of the loop and northside. For their sake, I hope that they can contain the damage done by their downtown or bust approach.

  2. Racaille says:

    Gun control works.

    Please note graph.


    “Occasional blips aside, Chicago is a lot safer than it was 20 years ago.”

  3. Racaille says:

    “One item I know I mis-worded. Talking about the NYT piece, my intent was to say that Chicago’s gun laws are pretty tough and broadly comparable to NYC and LA, and so you can’t blame Chicago’s murders on differences in gun policies. That doesn’t mean Chicago and America can’t do better when it comes to guns, but to blame gun laws is really just blame shifting by people who don’t want to take responsibility for what’s going on on the streets of Chicago.”

    Mr. Renn, you are being intentionally vague. I can assure you that New York state’s gun laws have had a profound effect on the homicide rate in NYC.

    Furthermore, when someone can take a 15 minutes trip to a state like Indiana where one can practically buy a grenade launcher makes the whole Chicago gun law conversation and its effectiveness a moot point.

    Lastly, you say that no one is taking responsibility.

    Please note:

    Do you not see responsibility here?

  4. Rico says:

    Poverty & violent crime go together like peas in a pod. And soft skills that make you employable are hard to learn after age 4.

    So Chicago can make huge progress by making sure that all children in the south side get proper preschool/school, nutrition, and beds. Their chances of being successful in life rise as their chances of being violent criminals decline. It will take 12+ years to see the results, but it would be worth it.

    Fewer young criminals, means lower crime, which means fewer murders.

  5. James says:

    Well I will applaud you for this article because it was thoughtful. The truth is no one has a very convincing argument for the causes of violent crime. I have heard every pet theory as to why crime spiked in the late 60s and dropped in the late 90s. Everything from lead poisoning to abortions are cited but all explanations are lacking.

    Another point of contrast that should be stated is that Chicago is competing not only with New York and LA but also with Schaumburg and Arlington Heights. The disparity in violent crime between core cities and their suburbs is one of the many causes of suburbanization.

  6. whet moser says:

    One thing I’ve been thinking of: Chicago has a *lot* of gang members. Way more than NYC, and that’s also something of a mystery.

    And I can’t help but wonder if Chicago’s status as a major shipping hub has at least something to do with that (not as a sole cause, obviously). It’s a good city to get goods into and out of; I think we do more annual tonnage on both trains and trucks than LA and NYC, for example.

    So if it’s a good hub for licit goods, wouldn’t it follow that it’s also a good hub for illicit goods? To put it simply, we have a gang problem for the same reason the CBOE is here: location.

  7. Thanks for the comments.

    Whet, those are interesting questions. More to think about. I definitely think some sort of gang dynamics comparison would be helpful.

    You all might also want to read Pete Saunders’ take:

  8. the urban politician says:


    Perhaps we’ve finally found Chicago’s “calling card industry”?

    Along the lines of what Whet said, Chicago’s position as the crossroads of America puts it in an enviable position for anybody who wants to dominate the drug trade. This gives Chicago the dubious distinction of being the gangster capital of America.

    We all know that well over 90% of the killing is gang related. Chicago is the home of some of the biggest national gangs; the Gangsta Disciples and the Latin Kings. The former is highly fractionated and, from what I’ve read and heard, there is a lot of strife and warring among the ranks.

    That is why there are so many murders in Chicago.

  9. the urban politician says:

    This rather brief article nicely summarizes what is happening in Chicago and goes along with my post above:

  10. Racaille says:


    “We all know that well over 90% of the killing is gang related. ”

    And then you have this:,0,4305549.story

  11. Gene says:

    Chicago’s homicide rate isn’t that high – Baltimore city proper is much higher:

    Chicago is unusual in that its anti-gun laws are the exact opposite of their state constitution’s language. Chicago Alderman are allowed to carry a gun without a permit, which is indefensible from a civil rights standpoint.

    Also, their gun laws were kept so strict because of the (relatively) well-known impact of the First Ward Alderman being, literally, a member of the Mafia. IOW Chicagoans cannot arm themselves, even within their own homes, because the Mafia says so.

    Most of the US gun violence is due to the drug trade. If we said the hell with it, and reversed 100 years of drug laws, and removed all taxes from the picture, gun crime would drop by 75% immediately and forever. Drug laws were enacted so rich white people could lock up as many black people as possible. Big business loves drug laws because of the prison industry, and the reduced competition with alcohol and pharmaceuticals. The Obama Administration is much harsher than Bush ever was, with regard to medical marijuana outlets, because Mr Obama is a more energetic fascist than was his predecessor.

  12. Matthew Hall says:

    Bsltimore city is tiny in comparison to Chicago.

  13. DBR96A says:

    All social ills are the result of either poor parenting or no parenting.

  14. Marko says:

    I think Urban Politician nailed – central distribution in the drug network. When people think of drug trafficking they think of Crocket and Tubbs chasing a Miami drug runner in a speed boat or a Federali chasing a guy in the Dessert. Nobody thinks of the Railroad car or Truck filled with 10 tons of stuffed seafood making its way to a south side depot. I know cops here, and they will point blank tell you it’s the nations drug handler, and even more scary is it’s very big business. Gangsterism is alive and well in Chicago, as are all it’s tertiary industries such as money laundry, tax avoidance and more discrete services.

  15. may says:

    Gang wars and drugs. So what is new about that.
    Something else is going on? maybe rise in poverty, so more dependence on drug trade.
    Why Some Think Segregation Equals Murder In Chicago
    Murder and segregation: till death do they part
    Chicago needs to become less segregated and find a way to improve economy for its poor.
    Segregation in Chicago is a complex interplay between race and income: study

  16. Bob Cook says:

    From the Cornerside Yard piece you linked:

    “In addition to being shrinking cities, many of the high murder rate cities are frequent members of lists on residential segregation.”

    All of the items you listed, Aaron, are contributing factors, but if there’s one thread that seems to hold in all the worst murder cities, it’s that there has been a history of racial and economic segregation. What that does, I think, is not only create a desperate environment in the poorest areas, but also creates a head-in-the-sand, blame-the-victim attitude elsewhere. Unfortunately, I hear a lot of people in Chicago write off the murder rate to, well, not very nice words for African-Americans.

  17. ElamBend says:

    @Bob, I think you are on to part of it there, but it goes even deeper, I think. I think Chicago does deserve some comparison with St. Louis and Detroit. It you look at areas such as the far south side you can see that there HAS been the massive de-industrialization like those cities experienced. Chicago managed to preserve large parts of its city through a varied economy.
    Many African Americans who can, leave the city heading to the suburbs. A major part of the flight of Chicago’s middle class is black. There are neighborhoods in Chicago that have lost 20% of population just in the last decade. Land in many parts of the south and west side is worth, nominally, $1 per square foot, but with no one buying the true worth is close to nothing. Large parts of Chicago are being depopulated and what is left behind is kind of the wild west. The sane, the civic minded and the families have left.

  18. John Morris says:

    DBR96A says:

    “All social ills are the result of either poor parenting or no parenting.”

    A lot of truth to that, but bad parents have existed forever- although perhaps not on the level that exists now.

    The wildcard was that old school “Jane Jacobs” type neighborhoods have a complex web of community to fall back on.

    NPR has a post up about the possible connection between housing policy and violence.

    IMHO, Chicago has an above average number of severely broken up neighborhoods as do many of other high violence cities like Newark. Anyone read the book, Root Shock.

    If it takes a village, the government tore it down.

  19. John Morris says:

    OK, the NPR story is pretty useless. It does mention a possible connection between the rapid tear down of housing projects and violence in some of the places large numbers of former residents ended up.

    Many American cities have done the tear down neighborhood, rinse, repeat cycle over and over. I’m guessing this mass disruption and relocation has vast social effects. People make important social connections even in “bad neighborhoods”.

    Chicago, has a violence problem that starts with a government that treats masses of human beings like this.

  20. John Morris says:

    For the record, I think the drug war/ drug trade is a huge factor fueling violence as the booze trade did in the old school neighborhoods when Al Capone was around.

    But the immune system of a neighborhood is long string of business and social relationships. Tear them up and you risk really bad stuff.

    The Teenie Harris archive in Pittsburgh is a great window into how strong even many poor communities once were. He took almost 80,000 pictures of every aspect of public and private life. He was a news photographer, so he didn’t just take happy pictures. You see kids that might not have good homes and you see poverty but there’s a sense of community that shines through.

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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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