CHICAGO (AFP) — After murder rates hit a 40-year low last year, Chicago is again the grip of a wave of violence that has left dozens dead and forced parents to keep their children home from school for fear of stray bullets.
A weekend spree of violence that ended on Monday saw seven people killed in 36 separate shootings is just the latest incident to draw calls for better gun control from city officials and community leaders.
And with more people out on the streets as warmer weather returns, police are worried the violence will only get worse.
Twenty-four of the city's public school children have been slain since the academic year began in August; 21 of them were killed by shootings.
While just one was killed on school grounds -- an 18-year-old boy shot to death in a parking lot on a Saturday afternoon -- the violence in surrounding neighborhoods has created a climate of fear in the classrooms.
Parents and police are escorting students in high-risk housing projects to and from school in a program dubbed Operation Safe Passage, which began last month after gang violence escalated.
The city has tightened its curfew for teens and is even planning to deploy SWAT teams to help boost regular patrols.
Religious leaders have thrown open the doors of their churches and officials have expanded after-school programs to give children a safe place to play.
Community leaders and frightened students have held rallies and vigils.
And yet the shootings have continued.
"We need to stop the killing right now," said Reverend Walter Turner whose niece was shot on her way home from church just a few weeks ago.
Much of the violence has been limited to low-income and predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods on the city's south and west side and can be traced to gangs.
But the Chicago Sun Times said it is time for the city's wealthier residents to stop ignoring the violence just because they don't hear the gunfire.
Borrowing the idea of a Colombian newspaper protesting the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel movement, the paper reversed the type on its front page Tuesday and ran a photo of the backs of a group of white people waiting to cross the street.
"We are trying to say to our fellow Chicagoans, in the most attention-grabbing manner we can, that turning our back on the violence killing our young people will not make it disappear," the paper wrote in an editorial.
"Winter is over. The spring kill is here, and summer is coming. Still more blood will stain our sidewalks and streets, our porches and playgrounds."
The violence among teens comes after a steady decline in overall murder rates in Chicago and across the nation.
The number of homicides in Chicago fell to 443 last year, the lowest number in more than 40 years and nearly half the 761 recorded in 1997, according to Chicago police statistics.
Eighty-seven people were killed in the first three months of this year, down from 88 a year earlier.
But even though the numbers may be down historically, they are still far too high, said Chicago Public Schools chief Arne Duncan.
"Way too many children are living in fear and saying 'if I grow up' instead of 'when I grow up,'" he told AFP. "I got a letter from a second grader who said her goal in life is to be able to walk to the corner store safely."
While the root causes of the violence -- social inequality, poor parenting, gangs and drugs -- are complex, getting guns off the streets would dramatically reduce the death toll, Duncan said.
"We know the answer and that's why it drives me crazy," he said, calling gun violence a public health epidemic.
"What we're lacking is political courage."
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