Skip to main content

Chicago's record murder rate: Don't blame guns alone

By Jen Christensen, CNN
April 11, 2013 -- Updated 0017 GMT (0817 HKT)
Activists say gun control isn't the only thing needed to reduce deaths in Chicago; what they need are more trauma centers.
Activists say gun control isn't the only thing needed to reduce deaths in Chicago; what they need are more trauma centers.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • 506 people were murdered in Chicago in 2012, according to local data
  • Chicago's South Side has no Level I trauma center
  • Trauma centers significantly reduce the danger of death from gunshot wounds

(CNN) -- On the same day Chicago police held a news conference to tout their improved murder rate in November, 15-year-old Porshe Foster got caught in the middle of deadly gang warfare.

It happed right before 9:30 p.m. November 26. The sophomore honor student had finished basketball practice and stood talking with friends in a neighborhood on the South Side of the city when someone shot about 20 rounds into her group.

One bullet hit Foster in her back.

There was a hospital only a few blocks away, but emergency services followed protocol. They took Foster instead to Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, nearly 5 miles away. Advocate Christ is legally certified and better equipped to deal with trauma cases.

CORRECTION
An earlier version of this story erroneously reported the number of murders in Chicago last year.

Although the experts say such Level I trauma centers, as they are officially known, give gunshot victims better odds, there are no such centers on Chicago's violence-plagued South Side -- a part of the city where some say they are sorely needed.

Obama talks guns in Chicago

Foster didn't make it.

"It's more than sad; it's really crushing," said her cousin, Camiella Williams. At 25, Williams says, she's lost 20 people she's known to gun violence.

"In my family, we aren't bad young people," she said. "We were taught to go to school. We grew up in the church. My little cousin (Foster) sang in the church choir. She played volleyball and basketball. She studied hard so she could become an architect.

"Hers is basically the same story as what happened to Hadiya (Pendleton). The only difference is, Hadiya went to the inauguration before she was killed. What that proves to me is you can go to an event with the president, and even that doesn't keep you safe."

First lady Michelle Obama's attendance at the funeral for 15-year-old Pendleton, who performed at one of the events surrounding President Barack Obama's inauguration before being caught in lethal crossfire, brought national attention to the teen death.

Porshe Foster, 15, got caught in gang crossfire in Chicago in November.
Porshe Foster, 15, got caught in gang crossfire in Chicago in November.

As the president visits Chicago on Friday, he will talk with a city that's bucking crime trends. Nationally, homicides are on the decline, but not in Chicago. Some 506 people were murdered last year, according to local crime statistics, up from 433 in 2011. January already set a bloody record, with some 43 people killed.

Opinion: Chicago's violence took my dad, friends

"It happens in the blink of an eye. It's wiping out my entire generation here," Williams said.

While the president talks about gun control, in a city where local activists say you can buy guns just about anywhere -- even gas stations -- some activists argue that should be only a part of the conversation about violence.

"If the main topic with the president is only going to be gun control, we are pushing ourselves backwards," said 20-year-old community organizer Veronica Morris-Moore. "It's hard to control guns here.

"What we need to do is address the root of the problem, the economic violence on a lot of these kids who don't have jobs or an education or even something to eat, and when they are victims of violence, they don't have access to the medical care they need. We need a trauma center here."

Morris-Moore is a part of an organization called Fearless Leading by the Youth. The group has held regular protests to demand an end to what they call the "trauma care desert" on the city's South Side.

The group was started by 18-year-old Damian Turner, who later became a victim of the violence he was trying to stop. He got caught in crossfire mere blocks from the University of Chicago Medical Center in 2010.

His mother told the New York Times at the time that it was the same hospital that saved her life when she was shot years ago. But the hospital no longer accepts adult trauma patients (PDF); it closed its adult trauma center in 1988 but kept its pediatric trauma unit.

Michael Reese Hospital (PDF), about 5 miles from the scene of Turner's shooting, closed in 2009. That meant the ambulance had to take him to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, 10 miles away. His friends believe that had medical help been closer, Turner's life may have been saved.

In its own position paper (PDF), the University of Chicago reported that it "does not have the resources to handle both pediatric and adult trauma centers." It describes trauma care as a "part of a much larger issue of unmet health needs."

"The Level I trauma centers are really expensive," said Dr. Garen Wintemute, who works in UC Davis' Level I trauma center in California and is the director of its Violence Prevention Research Program. At such trauma centers, medical staff are on duty around the clock, and an operating room is kept available.

The speed of these centers is key, Wintemute says. "The ambulance service is talking with the hospital as soon as they pick the patient up. That way, there are 15 people in the room waiting for the moment you roll through that door. You'll be in the operating room 10 minutes later. And if someone else comes in, there's another crew waiting. It's very expensive, but minutes matter here. It's what saves lives."

Dr. Marie Crandall is a trauma surgeon who has saved hundreds of gunshot victims at Northwestern University. "As a trauma surgeon here, it's a good portion of what I do every day," Crandall said.

She has been studying the connection between the survivability of gun violence in proximity to trauma centers in Chicago.

My view: How we talk about guns in my Chicago classroom

"To me, this violence places a tremendous burden on the health care system," she said. "It's crushing us."

Sixty-one regional trauma centers closed from 1988 to 1991 as costs rose and networks developed, according to the University of Chicago position paper. Only eight states provide any significant trauma center financial support. Bills have failed in the Illinois state House in the past to increase these funds.

And Chicago has more than twice the recommended one to two Level I or II trauma centers per million people. Another study it cites suggests that a delay in transportation from the South Side to a trauma center "has no impact" (PDF).

The "lethality rate," though, has gone up on the South Side, according to sociologist Anthony Harris. His groundbreaking 2002 study "Murder and Medicine" (PDF) may have been the first to identify the direct connection between the impact that medical technology and related medical support services have had in suppressing the homicide rate.

"The centers unequivocally make a difference," Harris said. Mocking up the numbers since Michael Reese Hospital closed, he says the lethality rate has gone up 25%. "The lethality rate is extremely sensitive to relatively small factors. When you have trauma centers closing all over the place, it is going to have an impact."

Community organizer Morris-Moore says she and her group will continue to protest and try to draw attention to the need for a South Side center. They've been at it for two years already. However, she says she never gets discouraged at the slow progress.

"As a community organizer, my only real weapon is hope," Mooris-Moore said.

As for Williams, who has lost so many including her young cousin, she is working with children with behavioral problems to teach them to understand consequences of violence before it is too late.

"I tell them we recently celebrated my cousin's 16th birthday at one of her favorite restaurants, Chuck E. Cheese, and we had to do it without her," she said. "It's just not right."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones, the president and acting CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, discuss the lethal mix of domestic violence and guns.
May 30, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
Gun rights and gun control advocates largely agree there should be restrictions on mentally ill people obtaining firearms. The case of Myron Fletcher illustrates how difficult it is to put that into practice.
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signed a wide-ranging gun bill into law Wednesday that has critics howling and proponents applauding.
June 13, 2013 -- Updated 1052 GMT (1852 HKT)
Six months after a gunman burst into a Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school and slaughtered 20 children and killed six others, promises of stricter national gun control laws remain largely unfulfilled.
June 25, 2014 -- Updated 1844 GMT (0244 HKT)
Next time there's a mass shooting, don't jump to blame the National Rifle Association and lax gun laws. Look first at the shooter and the mental health services he did or didn't get, and the commitment laws in the state where the shooting took place.
June 8, 2013 -- Updated 1120 GMT (1920 HKT)
The sign at the door of the Colt factory displays a gun with a slash through it: "No loaded or unauthorized firearms beyond this point." Understandable for workers at a plant, but also a bit ironic, considering one of the largest arsenals in America lies just beyond.
June 8, 2013 -- Updated 1118 GMT (1918 HKT)
Much attention has been paid to the defeat in Congress of proposals to ban assault weapons and expand background checks for firearm purchases.
June 29, 2013 -- Updated 1304 GMT (2104 HKT)
Morgan Spurlock's "Inside Man" gives CNN viewers an inside and in-depth look at the issue of firearms -- as viewed from behind the counter of a gun store. Here are five things to know about the debate.
May 5, 2014 -- Updated 1728 GMT (0128 HKT)
The Supreme Court continued its recent hands-off approach on gun control, refusing to accept a challenge to New Jersey's restrictions on carrying weapons in public.
April 18, 2013 -- Updated 1502 GMT (2302 HKT)
The Senate defeated a compromise plan to expand background checks on firearms sales as well as a proposal to ban some semi-automatic weapons modeled after military assault weapons.
April 12, 2013 -- Updated 0003 GMT (0803 HKT)
As Congress grapples with major gun control legislation proposals, brothers and sisters, mothers, fathers and children write about the people they loved and lost to gun violence and how it changed their lives.
April 11, 2013 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
Hear from both sides of the gun debate as opinions clash.
May 1, 2013 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
It was a bit awkward the first time Kate Daggett asked the question.
April 10, 2013 -- Updated 1341 GMT (2141 HKT)
Many Americans and lawmakers are in favor of continuing or expanding background checks on gun purchases, but few understand how the checks work.
April 4, 2013 -- Updated 1935 GMT (0335 HKT)
Still stinging from the shooting deaths at Sandy Hook, Connecticut lawmakers approved what advocacy groups call the strongest and most comprehensive gun legislation in the nation.
March 29, 2013 -- Updated 1353 GMT (2153 HKT)
It took fewer than five minutes for Adam Lanza to squeeze off 154 rounds, upending life in Newtown, Connecticut, and triggering a renewed national debate over gun control.
Who should get them? Join the gun control debate and share your perspective on CNN iReport.
April 2, 2013 -- Updated 1524 GMT (2324 HKT)
Before having children, she was a firm believer that guns were dangerous. Now this mother of three has a different perspective.
March 19, 2013 -- Updated 2254 GMT (0654 HKT)
In the biggest fight over firearms since December's massacre at a Connecticut elementary school, gun-control advocates are poised to notch a victory in an unlikely place.
A former drug addict turned anti-violence crusader, and a man who lost his father in a temple shooting. These are just two of many in the conversation.
February 1, 2013 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
At a town hall that brought all sides of the gun debate together, was there a consensus? Sort of.
February 5, 2013 -- Updated 1551 GMT (2351 HKT)
The federal background check system for gun buyers didn't stop a mentally ill man from buying a gun, which he used to kill his mother.
February 1, 2013 -- Updated 0037 GMT (0837 HKT)
In disputes over the future of gun laws, people espousing different positions often literally don't understand each other.
ADVERTISEMENT