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Why is Chicago struggling with gun violence? N.Y. might have answers.

In some ways, Chicago and New York City are taking similar paths to combat gun violence. But New York has gotten a handle on gangs – and that might be the big difference.

By Staff writer / February 2, 2013

Chicago police officials speak at a news conference Monday with a display of recently seized guns, part of the 574 that had been seized in the city since Jan. 1. The city suffered through its deadliest January in more than a decade.

M. Spencer Green/AP

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Chicago

At first glance, it might appear that Chicago is doing many things right in its fight against gun violence.

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Strict gun laws prohibit the purchase of guns within city limits, ban the possession of assault weapons, and call for steep fines if stolen or lost guns are not reported to police. Moreover, the Chicago Police Department seized 7,400 guns used in crimes in 2012 – more than twice what New York City did, for example.

Yet Chicago is in the midst of its worst period of gun violence in years. Its 513 homicides last year was a four-year high, and last month’s 42 homicides were the most in a January since 2002. Meanwhile, much larger New York had only 414 homicides in 2012 – an all-time low. If it had Chicago’s murder rate, New York would have totaled more than 1,400.

Both cities have tough gun laws, and both face the problem of weapons used in crimes being brought in from outside their borders. But New York has distinguished itself by its anti-gang program. Though experts acknowledge that New York and Chicago are different cites with different factors in play, they point to New York’s work in reducing gang violence as a game-changer.

“If you remove gang-related incidents from the Chicago homicide statistics, the homicide rate involving normal citizens is much lower,” says James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston.

New York’s experience suggests that Chicago’s emphasis on seizures, while not necessarily counterproductive, might not be the most effective tool for lowering its homicide rate.

“It’s certainly good to get guns off the street and the more guns you can acquire can’t hurt. But in places like Chicago where you can go outside the city line and buy all the guns you want, it’s not clear that [gun seizures] have any demonstrable impact on crime,” says Richard Berk, a criminologist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

For one, keeping track of guns is notoriously difficult. Straw gun purchasing, in which guns are purchased legally but are passed to another person for criminal purposes, is a problem in every major city. In Chicago, 20 percent of the guns used to commit crimes between 2008 and March 2012 originated in the suburb of Riverdale, Ill., because of a single store there – Chuck’s Gun Shop, according to the University of Chicago Crime Lab. The store owners say they follow federal and state laws and are not legally responsible for how, or where, the guns they sell are used.

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