Editor’s Note: Jens Ludwig is the Edwin A. and Betty L. Bergman Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago, director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, and an elected member of the National Academy of Medicine of the National Academies of Science. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
President Donald Trump has announced that federal agents will be sent to cities struggling with gun violence, including Chicago, my hometown. There are things that would be helpful to the city, but this does not seem like one of them.
News reports suggest that 150 agents are on their way to the Windy City to fight crime. But they aren’t likely to help much, particularly if they do in Chicago what they are doing in Portland.
Adding 150 people to the police force Chicago already has (around 13,000) changes the total by about 1%. The best available evidence suggests we would be lucky to get even a 1% reduction in crime as a result.
While the benefits are likely to be negligible, the downside risk is great. Protests around the country after the murder of George Floyd (together with survey results by the Pew Research Center) make clear that people are increasingly concerned about the basic fairness of policing in America.
Federal agents tear-gassing mostly peaceful protesters and throwing them into unmarked vans will understandably just make those concerns worse.
This doesn’t mean there aren’t real problems in Chicago. Compared with 2019, shootings in Chicago are up 47% year to date and up fully 89% over the past 28 days.
This week 15 people were shot coming out of a funeral home.
This gun violence is concentrated in the same economically disadvantaged, predominantly African American neighborhoods on the South and West sides that were already suffering the most from the coronavirus pandemic.
One striking fact about the thousands of shootings that happen in Chicago every year is that not a single one of those crime guns shows up in the data as having been bought from a gun store in the city – because there are no gun stores in the city.
Data analyzed by my University of Chicago colleague Harold Pollack and Philip Cook of Duke University (and cited in the city’s 2017 gun trace report) show that just two suburban Illinois stores accounted for one of every 10 crime guns confiscated in Chicago in 2017.
A total of just 10 gun stores account for fully one of five of Chicago’s crime guns.
If we know where the guns are coming from, why doesn’t someone do something? The answer is politics.
The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, whose job it is to oversee gun stores, is understaffed. And because of the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986, ATF is not allowed to make more than one unannounced visit to a gun store per year.
While it’s true that America has a lot of guns already in circulation (over 300 million), other research by Cook and Pollack, with Kailey White, a sociology PhD student at the University of Chicago, shows that criminals have a strong preference for newer guns, presumably so they don’t get caught with someone else’s crime gun.
More federal attention to the gun dealers that supply so many crime guns in Chicago (and similarly in other cities across the country) is one thing that could actually help a lot in the short run.
The federal government could also be much more helpful to cities in solving their longer-term problems, including addressing the root causes of the violence. Perhaps the most important root cause is unequal access to educational opportunity in America.
We continue to rely far too much on local property taxes to fund schools. This creates twin problems for cities with high levels of poverty: higher levels of school spending are needed to properly support economically disadvantaged students compared to affluent children; and at the same time, high levels of poverty limit the local property tax base available to fund schools.
The Century Foundation issued a report this week, for example, showing that to bring Chicago’s per-student public school spending even just up to the national average would require more than $6,000 additional spending per student, an increase of over one-third of its current spending level of $16,000.
For the city as a whole, that would cost more than $2 billion in total (that’s “billion” with a “b”), according to the foundation’s report.
Neither cities nor their surrounding states will be able to make up these funding gaps for years to come, given the economic fallout of the pandemic. The federal government currently provides just 8% of total K-12 dollars but, with its ability to redistribute money across places and run deficits during bad economic times, could do a lot to help here.
As an immigrant to America myself, I have always tried to believe the best about the country – and that we’re all in this together. Our cities do actually need help from Washington, DC, more than ever right now, but it’s got to be the right kind of help.