The year 2021 will be remembered as one of the deadliest in recent memory in Chicago and Illinois.
The tragic death of nearly 800 victims of gun violence in Chicago is a dark chapter of grief. I remember two in particular.
In August, two little girls were shot dead after Sunday church outside their grandmother’s house on the northwest side. According to their father Michael, a CTA bus driver: “They shot him in the heart. She didn’t even get a chance to fight.
Serenity Broughton, 7, died while her 6-year-old sister, Aubrey, miraculously survived. Their grandmother Regina said: “I am lost. I’m lost… they were my life, my everything. The grandmother said the girls were looking forward to their first-ever plane trip in just two days.
And that same month, Ella French, a 29-year-old Chicago police officer, was shot dead during a traffic stop in West Englewood while her partner, Carlos Yanez Jr., was seriously injured in the same incident.
My wife and I went to Sainte Rita de Cascia Shrine Chapelin Beverly View to honor Officer French. We were overwhelmed with the outpouring of grief from hundreds of uniformed officers standing and patiently waiting to march into the school chapel. At the back of the church was an enlarged photo of Officer French holding a stray puppy she had picked up on one of her early missions. This beautiful image of her smiling face is always with me.
I know that the lion’s share of responsibility for law enforcement rests with state and local governments.
But the federal branch has its own criminal jurisdiction, resources, and street reputation.
A recent Chicago hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which I chair, highlighted three key areas where we need a more aggressive federal response.
First, Chicago is awash with illicit weapons that are used to shoot and kill. Last year, at least 4,422 people were shot in Chicago, according to Chicago Police Department data. Of the 797 Chicago homicides reported by the CPD last year, 745 — or 93% — were committed by gunshot. By comparison, the FBI’s most recent national statistics found that 77% of homicides in 2020 were committed with firearms.
During our hearing, the executive director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, Roseanna Ander, pointed out in her testimony that while several types of violent crime are down nationally, shootings and homicides are up. “We have a gun violence crisis,” she said.
The tsunami of illicit firearms in Chicago and across America includes too many guns bought from gun dealers in straw buys. Criminals who cannot pass background checks use others with clean records to make these straw purchases. It was the deception allegedly used to buy the gun that killed Officer Ella French. It’s time to pursue that reckless driving aggressively. A bipartisan bill I introduced will turn straw purchases from a paperwork offense to a serious federal crime.
Second, the scandalous stories of carjackings in the area demand intervention. I join Sheriff Tom Dart in asking automakers to give us additional tools to cut short these deadly rides.
But we need to do more. During the hearing, I asked U.S. Attorney John Lausch what specific steps his office is taking in conjunction with local law enforcement to combat carjackings. I was pleased to hear his response that this issue has been the focus of his office and that he is working with the CPD and federal law enforcement agencies to identify trends and cases that may be prosecuted at the federal level. I am working with colleagues to introduce bipartisan legislation that would remove barriers to federal prosecution for violent carjacking offenses.
Finally, as resolute as we must be in law enforcement, we cannot stop our way out of this maddening death spiral. We need street and school strategies to identify trauma at an early stage and apply public health interventions that prevent troubled children from becoming reckless and hardened gang members.
Whether through a trusted mentor, teacher, counselor or community leader, we have the tools to help our children and young adults deal with the emotional scars of a traumatic upbringing and set them on the path to success. I passed bipartisan legislation in Washington to support this, and I am now working to expand federal funding for these programs.
We must also invest in reducing poverty and promoting economic opportunity in the hardest hit neighborhoods that bear the brunt of Chicago’s gun violence. And we need to strengthen evidence-based community programs that seek out and support those most at risk of violent encounters. These investments will result in lives saved and communities revitalized.
I am not naive. We cannot save all the victims.
But I’ve seen approaches that have proven to work to transform lives. In our anger and fear for the safety of our city, let us use every tool to end the violence and the death.
In 2022, federal authorities must step up and play a bigger role in the solution.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Dick Durbin is a United States Senator from Illinois.