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Friday, 30 April, 1999, 16:09 GMT 17:09 UK
City Hall vs. the gun lobby in Chicago
By Olenka Frenkiel
It was a Wednesday night in Chicago's South Side, and 17-year-old high school student Eric Ersery was chatting with a friend on her front porch, when a young man walked up and shot them both. Eric died trying to protect his friend.
James and Lamarr - casualties of the "gang-bangers" James and Lamarr, both in their twenties, don't figure in those murder statistics because although they too were shot, they survived.
Both James and Lamarr were gang-members, though now their days are often spent visiting local schools in an effort to persuade teenagers to focus on sports or music and not to get involved in drugs and guns. In a programme run by the Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital called In My Shoes, they talk about their injuries, their past in the gangs, and offer advice to their audiences on how to avoid the crushing peer pressure they gave in to.
James, who was a keen athlete when he was at school, has resumed his sports career and is now in the US marathon racing team competing in his wheelchair. He's hoping to show youngsters from deprived homes that with enough determination, any difficulty can be overcome.
But they both know they're up against a powerful sub-culture with vast sums of money at stake. "Getting a gun in this city," says James, "is like buying a loaf of bread... No," he corrects himself "a gun is like a dollar bill, it passes from owner to owner, a kind of currency. I could get you one this afternoon."
If it Worked for Tobacco, Why Not Guns?
The City Mayor, Richard Daley, who has watched Chicago's "gang-bangers" wreak havoc in the neighbourhoods has decided to fight back.
The Mayor is determined. "If the tobacco industry can be made to pay, if car manufacturers can be regulated, why not guns?" he told me. "This is the only industry that's never been scutinised or held to account - but that's going to change."
God Bless America
This is a land of contradictions, of the Second Amendment where a citizen's right to bear arms is enshrined in the Constitution. It's a country now reeling from yet another school massacre where a child takes a parent's gun and commits the kind of atrocity we normally associate with war-crimes. And it's a country where Charlton Heston, a Hollywood icon and spokesman for the gun lobby, can respond by suggesting: "Arm the teachers and ban trench coats".
At GATGuns, an Illinois gunshop outside the City limits - not one of those cited in the Mayor's lawsuit - Greg Trapino, the owner, admitted to me that when people are killed with guns which he's sold legally, but which have found their way into a murderer's hands, he cannot help but feel bad.
But he insists it's wrong to attack the industry. Whether it's civil lawsuits of the kind filed by Mayor Daley, or promises of more gun control legislation announced this week by President Clinton, he argues that restricting the rights of law-abiding people to own a gun is unfair and won't dent the murder statistics. "After all," he says, "I think about the two million lives saved every year by the use of guns in self-protection."
I thought back to my most dangerous moments - from burglars to war-zones to drug-crazed gunmen in the favelas of Rio - and I realised that never once had it occurred to me, no matter how great the danger, that a gun might have been useful. I thought of poor Jill Dando, the British television presenter murdered on the doorstep of her London home this week. Would a gun really have helped her? I have my doubts.
Some areas of Chicago are certainly living in daily fear of gun and gang violence. When we took a short car ride around one neighbourhood with Kenny Ruiz, a street intervention worker with the YMCA, I was startled by how many signs of gang activity there were all around us. Kenny helps gang members who want to change their lives, but he's also trusted by local gang leaders, and knows all the ins and outs of the landscape - the clothing codes, the graffiti, the internal power struggles. Here, it seemed, the gangs were an inescapable presence.
When I visited Lisa Jones, the mother of Eric Ersery, the 17-year-old killed while I was in Chicago, she said "I feel like I've been running a marathon. I brought him up carefully protecting him, guarding him, steering him all those years and I almost made it. But at the last minute, someone took the finishing line away." But even at this moment of grief and mourning, Eric's godfather complained that the gun laws in Chicago were too strict and prohibited him, a law-abiding citizen, from having a handgun in his house to protect his family.
Britain and the US have much in common. But when it comes to guns, America is still a very different animal.
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