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A Look At The National Picture Of Gun Violence In The U.S.


The violence in Chicago has been getting a lot of coverage this week. Over the weekend, more than 70 people were shot. So you might be surprised to learn that the homicide rate in Chicago is not the highest in the U.S. According to the most recent FBI data from 2016, Chicago came in number nine among U.S. cities of a quarter million people or more.

To talk about how Chicago fits into the broader national picture of gun violence and homicide, Thomas Abt of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government joins us now. Welcome.

THOMAS ABT: It's a pleasure to be here.

SHAPIRO: If the problem is not worst in Chicago, where is it worst when you look at U.S. cities?

ABT: There are a few cities that are sort of perennially at the top of the list in terms of per capita murder rates. St. Louis is currently the nation's murder capital. But cities like Baltimore, Detroit and New Orleans are always near the top.

SHAPIRO: And are we talking about orders of magnitude higher compared to Chicago, or are they all pretty much in the same zone?

ABT: No, the homicide rate in Chicago for 2016 was about 28 homicides per hundred thousand. That's half as high as the rate for St. Louis and significantly lower than the rates in Baltimore, Detroit and New Orleans.

SHAPIRO: So why do you think Chicago gets so much more attention?

ABT: You know, it's hard to say. I think that it's one of the big three, meaning one of the three largest cities in the United States. And compared to the other two cities, Los Angeles and New York City, it has relatively high rates of violence. It's a major media market. And I think that there is just a narrative that has been set there about this problem. It is a quite serious problem. We need to be careful not to minimize what's going on in Chicago. But it's also important to keep the problem in context.

SHAPIRO: I was interested to see that Washington, D.C., has a higher homicide rate than Chicago. It's our nation's capital. It is certainly a major media market. And yet we rarely hear about homicides in this city unless you're watching the local news here.

ABT: Well, that's certainly true now, but you may remember a number of years ago Washington, D.C., was also often at or near the top of the nation's most dangerous cities. Now, Washington has experienced a significant decrease in violent crime over the years, but this year, homicides are way up in Washington, D.C.

SHAPIRO: We've heard a lot about Chicago being not necessarily a violent city as a whole but having very violent neighborhoods where there's a real divide. Is the same true in these other cities where you have much higher homicide rates, the St. Louis and New Orleans and Detroits?

ABT: Yes, urban violence is everywhere and always a concentrated or hyper-concentrated phenomenon. It doesn't just concentrate in certain neighborhoods. It concentrates in certain locations that criminologists often call hotspots. So what you might think of as a, quote, unquote, "dangerous neighborhood" is actually a neighborhood that has safe areas and dangerous areas, maybe one or two or three hotspots.

SHAPIRO: And can you characterize the national urban violence problem in one way, or does it really vary depending on which city you're looking at, whether you're talking about gang violence or random criminality or what have you?

ABT: I use the term urban violence to really signal the connection between youth violence, gang violence, gun violence, street violence, all of these various terms. And urban violence across the United States looks very much the same. It's committed in a small number of places by a small number of people, usually young men without a lot of hope or opportunity.

SHAPIRO: Thomas Abt is a senior research fellow studying gun violence at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Thanks for joining us.

ABT: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.