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Chicago gun violence reaches tipping point

Deaths, including that of 15-year-old schoolgirl who attended President Obama's inauguration, have captured the nation's attention, unnerved the mayor and even shut down part of its infrastructure.

Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton is comforted near a Chicago park where her daughter Hadiya was killed on January 30.
Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton is comforted near a Chicago park where her daughter Hadiya was killed on January 30.

CHICAGO // Even by Chicago's grim standards, gun violence in America's third-most-populous city has reached something of a tipping point this month with deaths that have captured the nation's attention, unnerved the mayor and even shut down part of its infrastructure.

On January 14, two lanes of the Eisenhower Expressway, a central commuter artery, had to be closed after a fatal shooting incident spread onto the motorway. Two days later, a 17-year-old was mortally wounded in the back while fleeing a fight after a basketball game featuring Jabari Parker, one of the nation's top high school players. And then there was this week.

The January 29 fatal shooting of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton a mile from president Barack Obama's South Side home was the latest to complicate his drive for stricter gun-control measures, with such violence spiralling in a place with some of the nation's toughest existing laws. It also has threatened the political stature of mayor Rahm Emanuel by undermining his city's sense of security.

"Nobody knows what to do — nothing seems to be working," said John McCarron, an urban affairs writer and adjunct professor at DePaul University in Chicago. Incidents such as Pendleton's death are "an embarrassment" to Mr Emanuel because it shows his inability to reduce violence in Mr Obama's hometown.

Pendleton, who had attended the president's inauguration in Washington earlier this month, died after taking shelter from the rain with other students near King College Prep High School, where she was a band majorette and played volleyball. She was shot in the back, and a 16-year-old boy was wounded by a gunman who sped away in a car, police said.

The midafternoon shooting occurred beneath a metal canopy in a small park with brightly painted playground equipment. The violence belied the tidy order of a street with restored brownstones and newly constructed brick townhomes.

"People go to work and take care of their kids" here, said Reggie Jones, assistant band director at Pendleton's school. "This is mind-boggling because you wouldn't expect to see this happen in this environment. Not around here."

Friends and relatives described Pendleton as a solid, disciplined student who smiled a lot and wanted to be a lawyer.

Standing in the park a few feet away from the shooting site, Vakiya Bedford, 17, said her cousin was determined to succeed because that's what was taught at home. "Her parents were the type to make sure you're studying and getting your homework done — work before play," Ms Bedford said.

"Nothing pains you more than calling a fellow parent to try to comfort them," Mr Emanuel said Wednesday, displaying emotion. "She is what is best in our city. A child going to school, who takes a final exam, who had just been to the inaugural. And I think if anybody has any information, you are not a snitch. You're a citizen."

At a news briefing in the park yesterday, Chicago police superintendent Garry McCarthy said his department had little information that would lead them to the killer. He offered a reward of at least $11,000 (Dh40,000) for information leading to the arrest of the alleged killer.

The US Congress is debating ways to curb gun violence after a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, that killed 20 children and six adults. Mr Obama backs a ban on sales of assault weapons, a proposal that faces opposition in Congress even as most of the public supports it.

The Windy City saw 506 killings in 2012, the most in four years, and already 42 this month.

Chicago has some of the nation's strictest laws against possessing firearms. In December, a federal appeals court here struck down an Illinois law banning loaded guns from being carried except in homes or businesses. The court gave the state, the only one with an outright prohibition on loaded weapons outside the home, 180 days to draft new legislation consistent with public safety and the US Constitution's Second Amendment.

That followed a 2010 US Supreme Court ruling striking down a Chicago ban on handguns, even for self-defence in a home, that the justices said went too far. The City Council later rewrote the ordinance to comply with the ruling.

Chicago's murders are typically concentrated in the city's poorer South and West Side neighbourhoods, making it easier for residents in other parts of the city to ignore the issue. Wednesday, the nation's attention was turned to the Kenwood area where Pendleton was shot.

"You took the light of my life," her father, Nathaniel Pendleton said, addressing the unidentified killer. "Just look at yourself and know that you took a bright person, an innocent person, a nonviolent person."