Lifelong Austin resident Jessica LaShawn was walking with two of her teenage students by her home near North and Central avenues on a recent Saturday when they heard the sound of gun fire.
She was terrified; the teens with her reacted differently.
“The kids were just like, ‘Oh, they shoot,’ and just kept on their Instagram and kept walking,” LaShawn said.
“They are used to this,” she told a panel of West Side elected officials and police officers who turned out for a meeting last week to discuss gun violence.
More than 100 people attended last week’s meeting held at the Northwest Austin Council’s office at 5730 W. Division St.
LaShawn – who founded the Austin-based Mogul Academy, which provides financial education to West Side teens and young adults – said gun violence has “increased tremendously” over the past decade in her community.
“We’ve had more shootings than we ever had before,” she said in an interview later.
She’s worried about young people in Austin who have to live in a community with so many shootings and face being “constantly labelled as at risk from a young age.”
So far this year (from Jan. 1 to Oct. 5), 382 shootings have been recorded, leaving 66 dead and 315 wounded, according to data released by Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin’s office.
That’s far more shootings than in Englewood, the Chicago community area most impacted by gun violence after Austin; in Englewood, 43 people have died, and 168 have been wounded.
Citywide, there have been 538 homicides and about 2,900 shootings. That’s an average of 60 people killed per month.
“The reason why we gather tonight is because gun violence has been a major issue in this community and throughout the city of Chicago for way too long,” Boykin said.
“We will help to clean up this neighborhood and make this neighborhood safer,” he said, adding he’s been working with other West Side elected officials, law enforcement and local gun violence prevention organizations to reduce shootings.
As national debate over gun ownership has intensified in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, guns flowing from neighboring states into Illinois, Chicago and eventually the West Side, have become a “public health problem,” said state Rep. Camille Lilly.
“Many of the laws that we are dealing with related to guns are causing stress and issues with the citizens,” Lilly said.
The Illinois Legislative Black Caucus is pushing for legislation that would make the restrictions on guns more stringent, Lilly said.
That includes bills that would require chips be inserted into guns and serial numbers put on ammunition, which would make weapons easier to trace if they were used to commit a crime after being transported across state borders.
“The illegal trafficking of guns into Illinois is a problem,” she said. “All of these efforts will allow us to know who purchase the gun and where the gun was purchased from.”
The legislation, along with stronger background checks and pre-ownership procedures, faces opposition at both the federal and state levels, Lilly said.
“It’s not popular legislation, and it’s going to be difficult,” she said.
She called on community members to become more organized – just as organized as the National Rifle Association.
The only way to really counter those against gun control is for people to use their voting power, said U.S. Congressman Danny K. Davis. “The problem needs to be solved by all of us together.”
Meanwhile, West Side officers say they are enhancing collaboration at the city and county levels – and upgrading technology.
Earlier this year, the 15th District launched its so-called strategic deployment center, where officers can receive signals from street monitors that detect gunshots and react more quickly, District Commander Dwayne Betts said.
The district has seen fatal shootings drop by 20 percent, Betts said, but they’re still too many shootings.
The community needs to get more involved when it comes to solving crimes in the neighborhoods, said Marlon Parks, deputy chief of patrol for the Cook County Sheriff’s Department.
“A lot of times the community knows so much more information than we could ever get,” said Parks, who’s been working with the local police officers in Austin the last four months as part of a county initiative to send resources to areas needing more law enforcement assistance.
Representatives from violence prevention groups that work in Austin stressed the importance of having more programs for the youths and shared what they’ve been doing to reduce shootings on the West Side.
While there’s been some progress, some cast doubts about whether the approach elected officials in Austin are taking to address shootings has been effective.
Bertha Purnell, whose 28-year-old son Maurice Purnell was shot to death on Laramie and Division in late June, said she’s still waiting for the case to be solved.
“I need justice for my son,” she said. “We need some prevention for these other children.”