UChicago Crime Lab releases 2016 gun violence report

Researchers examine reasons for increase, look to policy strategies in new year

Presentation on Crime Lab report
Prof. Jens Ludwig presents findings from Crime Lab’s report on Chicago’s rise in gun violence.
Photo by
Jean Lachat
Mark Peters
News Director and Social Sciences SpecialistUniversity Communications

A new report from the University of Chicago Crime Lab examines Chicago’s 2016 rise in gun violence to determine reasons for the increase and provide a foundation for policy strategies in the year ahead.

“The goal is to help the city better understand exactly what happened with the hopes of avoiding another year in the future like the one that just passed,” said Jens Ludwig, the McCormick Foundation Professor of Social Service Administration, Law and Public Policy and director of the Crime Lab.

The report finds the increases in crime from 2015 to 2016 were much larger for gun crimes than for those not committed with firearms. Most of the violence stemmed from altercations in public places with a gun ready at hand. The violence was highly concentrated, with five of Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods accounting for nearly half of the increase in the city as a whole.

“What seems to have happened is an intensification of gun violence in those neighborhoods where the problem was already most pronounced,” said Max Kapustin, research director at the Crime Lab.

The report shows a sharp drop in the number of street stops carried out by the Chicago Police Department in the last year. The role that changes in policing has on gun violence rates remains highly controversial. Despite strong claims made by both sides in the political debate, the Crime Lab report notes that there is no evidentiary basis to draw clear conclusions.

One of the most striking features of the increase in gun violence is how sudden it was: As late as December 2015, there was no indication that gun violence was on the verge of rising sharply, and the homicide rate had stayed relatively flat since the mid-2000s. Like most of the U.S., Chicago saw a marked decrease in violent crime starting in the 1990s, but its improvements never matched those in New York and some other large cities.

Last year, Chicago saw 764 murders, an increase of 58 percent over 2015. Chicago’s homicide rate per capita is near the middle for major U.S. cities—lower than Detroit, New Orleans and St. Louis, but higher than New York City, Los Angeles and Houston.

“The suddenness of the increase in gun violence that we saw at the end of 2015 helps rule out many candidate explanations for why there are so many more shootings now in Chicago,” Ludwig said. “Most of the candidate explanations written about by the news media—things like lax gun laws in nearby states, how local courts handle gun cases, or social conditions in the city like poverty and racial segregation—can’t really explain what we saw in 2016 because these factors did not change abruptly at the end of 2015.”

The researchers examined factors such as weather, the number of citywide arrests and spending on education and social services, but found that none changed by enough to explain why shootings began to surge at the beginning of 2016.

UChicago’s Crime Lab partners with civic and community leaders in Chicago and other cities to identify, test and scale promising programs and policies to reduce crime and violence. The Crime Lab in the coming weeks will use the report to further inform solutions with partners in communities across Chicago, as well as nonprofits, law enforcement and other government agencies.

Solutions that the Crime Lab and its partners plan to highlight for policymakers include cognitive behavioral therapy to help young people slow down and think before taking violent action, the importance of community engagement to enable effective policing efforts, and approaches to more effectively understand and limit the presence of guns in disadvantaged communities. Ludwig will join Shari Runner, Chicago Urban League president, and Fred Waller, Chicago Police Department chief of the Bureau of Patrol, to discuss such issues at a panel discussion hosted by the City Club of Chicago on Jan. 26.

“Not knowing exactly what caused the increase does not mean that we can’t find solutions and begin working immediately to make Chicago safer,” said Roseanna Ander, Crime Lab executive director. “We are starting to slowly understand how to address the violence problem, but to make large changes in the problem in our hometown will require an investment of resources much larger than is widely appreciated.”