Chicago is at a bloody crossroads, said Mayor Rahm Emanuel during an afternoon press conference Monday, during which he urged law makers to stiffen penalties for those caught with illegal guns and frank conversation in some of the city’s most violent neighborhoods.
He described Illinois’ criminal justice system as a “turnstile and a revolving door” in which the average person convicted of a gun crime serves only half the time to which they are sentenced, often getting off with as little as a year behind bars.
“The issue of gun violence is not limited to Chicago,” Emanuel said. “It’s an urban problem. But the only time gun issues get affected is when Newtown happens. When it happens in urban areas around the country too often it gets shunted away, gets pushed to the side, unless it’s a Columbine. Too often it’s Columbine, it’s Newtown, it’s Sandy hook. It’s all those situations, appropriately, it’s not wrong, but what is happening in urban areas has happened for a long time.”
The urban violence, Emanuel said, “gets put in a different value system. These are our kids, these are our children, and the worst thing for us to do in my opinion would be to say, ‘let’s not discuss this.’”
The mayor called for mandatory minimums and so-called truth in sentencing, which means people convicted of gun crimes would serve out their full sentences and not be allowed credit for good behavior.
Emanuel’s comments come just days before President Barack Obama’s planned trip to the city to talk about gun violence.
“I think the city is at an inflection and reflection point,” Emanuel said, saying that while loop holes in gun laws are part of the issue, so is a culture that has diminished the self-worth and value of its young men and women, particularly African-Americans who are disproportionately the victims and perpetrators of violent crime in Chicago.
“A piece of this is the culture,” Emanuel said. “Part of this is having an honest conversation, given the lion’s share of the victims and the perpetrators are young African-American men. Who better to have that discussion than the President of the United States who has repeatedly talked about” the importance of raising the hopes of such young people.
Chicago has emerged as ground zero in the debate over urban gun violence, a splinter discussion chipped from the broader gun control debate sparked by the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
A spate of recent killings— most notably the shooting death of 15-year-old honor student Hadiyah Pendleton, who marched in the president’s inaugural parade in Washington just about a week before she was struck by a gunman’s bullets— have shown an even brighter light on the city’s struggles with violence.
Over the weekend, First Lady Michelle Obama attended Hadiya’s funeral and met privately with the girl’s parents.
On Monday, police Superintendent Garry McCarthy confirmed that two people have been detained and are being questioned in Hadiya’s killing.
Shatira Wilks, a cousin of Hadiya’s who also serves as a family spokesperson, told the Chicago Tribune that arrests and charges will only bring a measure of solace to the family.
The shooter “will be allowed to eat, drink, mingle,” Wilks said. “The thing about that is, Hadiya is no longer able to do so.”
Emanuel said that he has spoken with Hadiya’s parents almost daily, and that in the wake of her death he’s seen communities across the city, those ravaged by violence and those largely shielded from it, coming together as a united front in defense of the city’s young and innocent.
“What I have seen,” he said, “is a promise in the city, that however we have to do it, we are pulling together as a city.”
Emanuel continuously noted New York law that includes a mandatory minimum of three and a half years in prison for those convicted of illegal gun possession, and touted the law as an important part of New York City’s strategy for reducing gun violence.
Current Illinois law mandates that felons caught with an illegal gun get only two years, though most serve only half of that after credit for good behavior, said Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, who joined the mayor on Monday.
“We must bear some responsibility,” Alvarez said. “Our current gun laws simply are not working, they are not strong enough. They are not deterring the gang bangers and the criminals…who know how to game the system.”