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Thursday, March 7, 2019 12:12 am

Former U.S. attorney shares lessons he learned

Reducing gun violence

I offered to write some articles for Illinois Times about criminal justice, because I have some concerns, and because I suspect that many readers also have concerns. I plan to look at a series of questions, including “What causes violence?” “Can we reduce violence?” “Are we safe?” “Are we smart?” “Are we fair?” And the ultimate question, “What is the best way forward, for a community that seeks justice in all its forms?”

When I became United States Attorney in central Illinois in June 2010, I immediately confronted the question of gun violence in Peoria. That city had 17 shooting deaths in six months, well above “normal” (as if there is a normal) and well above acceptable. My education – and my efforts – began.

Was there a quick answer? Yes. The police department began “saturation patrols” in the most dangerous areas, with additional officers from the city and nearby towns, with support from the general community, and with acceptance from residents in the most dangerous areas. These saturation patrols worked. The gun violence stopped. But the police could not maintain saturation patrols night and day, and the community could not accept permanent police “occupation.”

Peoria needed a longer-range answer. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) sent in undercover agents to work with the police, to investigate illegal gun purchases and to disrupt illegal gun usage. The FBI committed itself to a similar effort, again alongside the police. And Mayor Jim Ardis welcomed a longer-range solution, a “focused deterrence” program, aimed at deterring the people most likely to turn to gun violence.

Right now, I’d like to look at this question: Do people who commit gun violence share some common life experiences? There is an answer, in a study from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Wilmington, Delaware (population 71,000), had 127 shootings in 2013, including many homicides, so the city and state asked the CDC for a public health analysis and response. The CDC studied 569 people involved in firearm crime during a six-year period, and found some common characteristics. Of those involved, 95 percent were male, 70 percent were ages 15 to 30, 48 percent had been to a hospital emergency room after gunshots or fights, 86 percent were unemployed, 28 percent grew up in homes that were investigated by child welfare and 38 percent spent time in juvenile corrections. A large majority had serious problems with school, including suspensions, expulsions, excessive truancy and dropping out.
The CDC found that gun crime had a high correlation if a person had many of these life experiences, and the CDC found a lesser correlation if a person had fewer of these experiences. We need to be careful with this finding. It tells us that people who did shoot were likely to have a history with certain negative life experiences, but this does not tell us that people with negative life experiences are likely to shoot.

The CDC suggested remedies that could reduce the impact of each negative life experience: violence intervention programs in hospital emergency settings, placement and support for the unemployed, therapy after child welfare experiences, family support or foster care after juvenile corrections, and intervention and support after significant school problems.

This CDC study helps us understand the relatively common life experiences of people who commit gun crimes and gun violence. In my next article, I’ll explore what a community and its police may do when faced with the challenge of gun crime and gun violence.  

Jim Lewis is a former civil rights worker and lawyer and former law school teacher.  He came to Springfield with family in 1983, as an Assistant United States Attorney, and became United States Attorney in 2010. In late 2016, he retired, and now teaches and volunteers in this community.

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