Kent’s Note: This story comes from the New York Times News Syndicate
CHICAGO — Over a five-day stretch this month, in a single police district on this city’s South Side, 13 people were shot with assault-style rifles. The victims included two police officers wounded while sitting in a van. And 10 others were shot last Sunday during an impromptu memorial service for a man who had been killed a few hours earlier near the same spot along a neighborhood street.
The use of high-powered weaponry is an unsettling subplot in Chicago’s long-running struggle with gun and gang violence. Most of the city’s shootings involve handguns, but the use of an AK-47 or AR-15 rifle can wound far more victims in far less time, leaving police overwhelmed and residents ever more wary of venturing outdoors.
“People are walking around traumatized,” said Alderman Raymond Lopez, who lives a few blocks from the scene of Sunday’s shooting in the Brighton Park neighborhood. “It’s like they have that glazed look, like they’re not sure what to expect, not certain of what’s going to come out from behind the shadows at any given moment.”
Residents of Brighton Park, a working-class Latino neighborhood with well-kept homes and bustling restaurants, said occasional gunfire has long been part of life, but only in recent months do they recall such use of high-powered rifles. The latest shootings, which left three people dead, came at a time of escalating violence and turf disputes between Hispanic gangs in this part of Chicago, according to police. An analysis this year by The Chicago Tribune found 33 instances in a nine-month period where semi-automatic rifles were used in Brighton Park and nearby Back of the Yards, far more than anywhere else in the city.
In December, outraged neighbors held a vigil after four people were shot with an assault-style rifle near an elementary school. “Now this happens, six months later, and we ask the parents: ‘OK. What do you all want to do?’” Marcos Ceniceros, an organizer with the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, said. “And it’s like, ‘No, what can we do?’ There’s a lot of frustration.”
Chicago police said there has been no spike in assault rifle shootings citywide this year. Police have seized 79 assault rifles in 2017, only a slight increase from last year. Across Chicago, 194 people have been murdered this year, about 6 percent fewer than during the same period in 2016, when violence spiked to levels not seen since the 1990s.
Police said Hispanic gangs, suspected in this month’s bloodshed, are the most frequent users of assault rifles. One of the men charged in the shooting of the two officers had been out on bond after being charged with another gun crime — evidence, police said, of a judiciary that is too lax.
“We know the gangs that have the weapons,” said Anthony Guglielmi, a Chicago police spokesman. “We know the gangs that are using the weapons. And in some form, we kind of know where the weapons are coming from.”
American street gangs have used assault-style rifles for years. One such gun was used to shoot 13 people at a Chicago park in 2013, and the authorities have seized them from gangs in states including California and Missouri. Last year, hundreds of guns, including high-powered rifles, were stolen from a freight train passing through Chicago’s South Side. The weapons are more expensive, harder to come by and harder to conceal than revolvers and pistols, but present nonetheless.
“They’re not the weapon of choice, but they do get used,” said John Hagedorn, a criminologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago who has studied the city’s gangs.
But in Brighton Park, residents said they viewed the recent rifle shootings as evidence that long-festering gang disputes have metastasized into something even more vicious.
Lopez, the alderman, said he was threatened by gang members and has been assigned a Chicago police security detail since Sunday’s bloodshed. He said gang members had been offended when he told local reporters that “no innocent lives were lost” at that scene, a statement he defended Wednesday as officers stood watch outside his office. (Police said most, but not all, of Sunday’s victims had criminal records.)
On Wednesday night, more than 100 people gathered at the local Roman Catholic church to mourn the victims. As a driving rain flooded sidewalks, they marched through streets to the spot of the shootings.
Gabriela Ramirez, 33, said “there’s still hope” in Brighton Park, where she lives, but also fear. “What kind of society do you live in,” she said, “if you just shoot with no conscience?”