CHICAGO — I've covered crime in Chicago long enough that there’s not much — not even innocent kids getting killed by stray bullets — that really shocks me anymore.
But when a 23-year-old man allegedly pulls out a pistol in Rogers Park and shoots two people in a car because he didn’t like the song bumping from their stereo, it’s the kind of thing that can rattle a guy.
Shootings over trivial disputes aren't unique to Chicago.
But the allegation that Nathaniel Richardson shot two people for their poor taste in music sends a pretty scary reminder that shootings in Chicago, even “gang-related” slayings, can be over anything or nothing, and happen at any time at all.
It’s not immediately clear how big of a spike there has been in shootings motivated by the kind of silly riffs that used to just escalate into fistfights, not shootouts.
But these days, Chicago police will tell you those kinds of shootings happen more often than you think.
So far this year:
• A suburban man pulled out a gun at a Fourth of July party during a not-so-friendly game of beer pong to distract his opponent — and accidentally fired a round that hit two men.
• A Calumet Heights man allegedly shot and killed his good buddy in the chest for touching his Cadillac in July. “Let that motherf----- die,” the shooter said.
• An Englewood man shot and killed a guy who cheated at a dice game.
• A fender bender in Humboldt Park in April turned into a shooting when one driver got out of his car, shot the other driver in the shoulder and ankle and fled.
• A 17-year-old boy shot and killed a man in Uptown over a Facebook post he didn’t like.
It's impossible for most people to understand why someone would shoot a pal in the gut for disrespecting his Cadillac, so we often describe those type of shootings as “senseless,” as if there could never be rational reason to pull the trigger to eliminate a minor annoyance.
But what if that’s not entirely true?
Smart people who study these things will tell you that people surrounded by poverty and hopelessness, especially if they have easy access to black market handguns, get stuck in a vicious cycle that over time makes the unthinkable — like shooting someone over a Facebook post — seem like a reasonable course of action.
In dangerous Chicago neighborhoods, and other violent parts of America where it’s easier to get semi-automatic pistols than a job, regular folks get forced to make high stakes decisions that might make most people puke — take the gun or leave it when you walk the dog, for instance.
Where they’re from, a lot of people believe it’s dangerous, especially for teenagers, to get marked as a pushover. Carrying a gun — and being willing to use it — has become a more common way to cope with that harsh reality.
Three times a week, Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy meets with detectives who provide updates on murder investigations. McCarthy wants to know where they are on getting cooperation from witnesses and determining shooting motives.
One thing that stands out during those meetings: “There is an increasing number of petty disputes that are being settled with gun violence,” police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said.
Researchers who study shootings in Chicago say there are reasons for that — a dangerous combination of extreme desperation and limited consequences for shooting, coupled with easy access to pistols that empty a 17-bullet clip in two seconds.
It’s no secret that more than 90 percent of triggermen in shootings resulting in nonfatal injuries don’t get charged with a crime.
That’s a reality that police and researchers agree bolsters a strongly held belief on the street that you can almost always get away with carrying an illegal gun or shooting at a rival. And even if the police arrest you and a court convicts, it’s likely your sentence will be probation, a short stint in County Jail or house arrest.
“There’s not a sense of accountability. So they settle a fight with a gun because it doesn’t matter if they get caught because they’re not worried about the penalties,” Guglielmi said.
So far this year, police have arrested 1,504 people on illegal gun charges. According to Chicago police, those same people have more than 13,000 gun charges on their collective rap sheets. That averages out to nearly nine gun arrests each.
“That shows this is a culture where it’s easy to get a gun and pull out a gun to settle any dispute without fearing the consequences,” Guglielmi said.
The so-called “no-snitch” code of silence on the street, the No. 1 reason Chicago police say so many shootings go unsolved, remains a major factor in why Chicago shooters feel emboldened to keep shooting, even if it’s over losing a few bucks at a dice game or getting “disrespected.”
The unwillingness to cooperate with police stems from the fear that talking might get a pistol pointed your way and the Chicago Police Department — after generations of corruption and brutality protected by the “thin blue line,” law enforcement’s very own no-snitch code that can make dirty officers quick to dish out a beating, file a false report and lie to cover it up — can’t be trusted.
Why do efforts to break the no-snitch code not get the attention they deserve — from the media and politicians — as a way to increase shooting convictions and maybe even help break the vicious cycle that’s getting Chicagoans killed for the silliest reasons?
Even urban violence experts might not have a good answer.
There’s so much focus on what the police do to stem violence that so many other issues — low conviction rates, light sentences and the no-snitch culture that contribute to the growing willingness to shoot over nothing — gets overshadowed by body counts and comparative statistics.
The Cook County Court system doesn’t make enough information about the prosecutorial outcomes of felony gun possession and nonfatal shooting cases easily available. Heck, some cops don’t know what happens to shooters they arrest until the triggermen get arrested for shooting again or wind up dead.
Still, McCarthy says that rebuilding the fractured relationship between his department and folks living in Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhoods is a top priority.
One of the ways he’s doing that is teaming with City Hall to send officers and social workers to visit the homes of people with criminal backgrounds and gang connections that make them likely shooting victims, or shooters themselves. Having police on the intervention team makes it clear to people on the so-called “warning list” that if they continue down a crooked path they’ll wind up shot, dead or in jail.
During the sit-downs, social workers ask family members to be supportive of a lifestyle change before their loved one ends up dead. They even offer help getting a job.
It doesn’t always work.
On Wednesday night, a man on the police so-called “warning list” who recently got a job offer during a home visit was shot and wounded on 71st Street and King Drive.
“Here’s a guy we saw involved in gang activity growing up, got on our radar and tried to warn, who still got shot,” Guglielmi said. “That’s not a cop-out.”
He’s right. It’s a violent reminder that more people in Chicago will live and die under the gun, sometimes for no sensible reason at all, if we don’t push to crack the no-snitch code, erase the thin blue line and rebuild the broken trust that nurtures such violent, uncontrollable chaos in desperate parts of town.
Without that, shootings will only get more senseless and random, making Chicago an even harder place to call home.
So, if you’re out there navigating dangerous parts of town be prepared: Watch what you write on Facebook, Twitter, too. Avoid the dice games, or at least keep it clean. Don’t antagonize your old pals or talk too much trash playing beer pong. Turn the car radio down.
And remember: In Chicago, shooters don’t need a good reason to pull the trigger.
It might not make sense, but it’s true.
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