There are few problems in American society for which conservatives won’t cite Chicago as a defining emblem. When Barack Obama’s star was rising in national politics, the city’s ills were proof that he couldn’t govern. (He was a state legislator and then United States senator at the time, and therefore not involved in his adoptive hometown’s day-to-day operations.) When black people get killed by police, the right submits homicide statistics in Chicago as proof that “black-on-black crime” is the real problem. That killers of all backgrounds tend to kill people who look like them; that violence in poor, racially segregated neighborhoods abounds in most large cities; and that both are logical results of decades of racist policies and practices, from restrictive covenants to the terrorism enforcing them, go unmentioned. And when mass shootings occur and the prospect of stricter gun-control legislation is floated, conservatives point to Chicago as proof that restrictive gun laws don’t work.
Senator Ted Cruz is no different. After the Labor Day–weekend massacre in his home state of Texas, where a gunman killed seven people in Midland and Odessa, the Republican went on Twitter to reject gun control as a solution. “Gun control doesn’t work. Look at Chicago,” he tweeted, citing a story from Breitbart. “Disarming law-abiding citizens isn’t the answer. Stopping violent criminals — prosecuting [and] getting them off the street — BEFORE they commit more violent crimes is the most effective way to reduce murder rates.” These remarks prompted a back-and-forth with Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a Democrat, who tweeted, “[Sixty percent] of illegal firearms recovered in Chicago come from outside IL — mostly from states dominated by coward Republicans like you who refuse to enact commonsense [sic] gun legislation.” Cruz responded that Lightfoot’s “anger” was misplaced, adding that Chicago — which has “had Democratic mayors for decades and aggressive gun-control policies” — regularly leads the country in total murders. “Maybe, rather than getting angry when others point out the tragically high murder rate in Chicago, you put aside the partisan talking points & the failed gun-control policies Chicago has pursued for decades,” Cruz wrote. “Instead, lock up the violent criminals who are committing murder.”
It’s worth noting from the outset that the debate around violence in the Windy City is mired in lies. Chicago’s murder rate was outstripped by that of eight others in 2017 — all located in states governed by Republicans, incidentally; that makes its rate notable, but not an outlier among large cities. Meanwhile, the city’s murder numbers have been dropping: Homicides in 2018 were down 28 percent from 2016, and have plummeted since the 1990s, which themselves saw numbers well below the highs of the 1970s and 1980s. Nor does Chicago have uniquely aggressive gun-control policies — certainly not the “strictest … in the nation,” as former White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and President Trump have both claimed. The city’s 1982 handgun ban was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court a decade ago, and unlike New York and California — the only two states that house cities larger than Chicago — Illinois doesn’t require a state license for firearms dealers or to sell ammunition.
The truth is that Chicago’s problems have little to do with the partisan makeup of those governing it. As with most U.S. cities and states, its leaders have proven more than capable of providing a high quality of life and abundant safety for its white and wealthier residents. Their failures are felt most by black and poor people. That five police districts overseeing 8 percent of Chicago’s residents — the vast majority of them black — recorded nearly one-third of its murders in 2016 illustrates how wider variety often exists within cities than between them when it comes to murder rates. That calls for better jobs, housing, schools, and health care in these neighborhoods have been met repeatedly with the very brand of aggressive law enforcement that Cruz claims to be the solution illustrates why he’s not to be taken seriously.
If curbing gun violence in Chicago really was a matter of “prosecuting” and “[locking] up” more people, as the senator suggests, it would likely be one of the safest cities in America. The Cook County jail doesn’t house more than 8,000 prisoners on a given day because local law enforcement is too lenient. State’s Attorney Kimberly Foxx won election in 2016 promising to minimize contact between Chicagoans and the criminal-justice system; she appears to have done so, and without the corresponding spike in crime that critics of reform-minded prosecution often predict. But her predecessor, Anita Alvarez, was different.
During her eight years in office, from 2008 to 2016, the former S.A. oversaw a dramatic increase in jail overcrowding, underscored by a pattern of behavior that included recommending life in prison without the possibility of parole for juvenile defendants; charging residents with felony wiretapping for recording encounters with police; undermining her own case against a police officer who killed an unarmed black woman, Rekia Boyd, to ensure his acquittal; and most famously, declining to charge former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke with a crime for killing Laquan McDonald until more than a year after the fact, when footage of the murder was made public and weathering the backlash became unsustainable. That Alvarez’s prosecutorial aggression was standard procedure while conservatives were using Chicago as a cudgel to undermine Obama is equally telling: Locking people up wasn’t working then — murders spiked during Alvarez’s last year in office. Why is it Cruz’s solution now that murders are down and the Chicago Police Department is solving fewer murders by the year?
The simple answer is that the senator doesn’t actually care about the black people of Chicago, who suffer disproportionately from gun violence in the city, nor about how to actually solve their problems. He’s interested in undermining Democratic efforts to reduce firearm access, and is willing to invoke lazy tropes about the city to accomplish this, no matter how widely debunked they are. There’s a valuable discussion to be had about the nuances of ongoing gun violence in Chicago — even experts are often confounded as to what causes year-over-year rate spikes and declines; all agree that the contributing factors are myriad. It’s just not a discussion that Ted Cruz is interested in having. His commentary on the subject should be treated accordingly.