Shootings Dip in Chicago but Grow in Domestic Violence Cases

Chicago is expected to end 2023 with a double-digit decline in both shootings and homicides, a sign that the pandemic-era rise in gun violence is beginning to recede. But citywide data shows that a small subset of Chicago’s shootings — those involving domestic violence — have accelerated this year, a spike that is prompting new alarm among advocates for victims.

As 2023 nears an end, shootings that Chicago authorities deemed domestic in nature have increased 19 percent compared with last year at this time, according to city data. While the number of fatal domestic shootings is unchanged from 2022, nonfatal shootings have increased 27 percent.

Those shootings — 127, as of this week — include a broad array of situations that are classified as domestic, often occurring at home. They include violence against women at the hands of partners; a woman shooting her abusive partner in self-defense; and a man who shoots a cousin during an argument.

Only a small portion of the more than 2,800 people who were shot in Chicago in 2023 were found to be victims of domestic violence, but domestic shootings were a source of concern because of their growing numbers.

Experts on domestic violence said the reasons behind the rise are murky and could reflect a number of factors: Gun ownership has risen since the start of the pandemic, particularly in 2020, when applications for gun ownership licenses in Illinois jumped 56 percent over the year before.

“From our perspective, the easy access to firearms increased during the pandemic, and it’s probably the firearm access that drove up this type of violence during the pandemic,” said Amanda Pyron, the executive director of the Network, an advocacy organization in Chicago. “That is continuing.”

At the Network, a sheet shows a count of available shelter beds. Credit…Taylor Glascock for The New York Times

Lawyers who represent victims of domestic violence also pointed to a discernible — though difficult to quantify — change in tension, stress and violence that has settled in the United States since the pandemic.

“It feels like there has been a societal shift in the level of anger, violence and threats,” said Margaret Duval, executive director of Ascend Justice, a nonprofit that provides legal advocacy to victims of domestic violence. “We think about road rage and flight rage and all of these things. It may be showing up in homes as well.”

The escalating cost of housing could also be preventing some victims of domestic violence from leaving a dangerous situation, advocates who work with victims said.

“Housing is probably our clients’ number one need,” said Jennifer Greene, director of policy and advocacy for Life Span, an organization that provides legal services and counseling to victims of domestic violence. “Affordable housing doesn’t exist. If I’m trying to flee an abusive relationship and I don’t have anywhere to go that is safe, that’s a huge motivator to stay.”

Advocates are also concerned that many victims of domestic violence, usually women, may not be contacting the police for help when they are being threatened.

Darci Flynn, a consultant who until September was the director of gender-based violence strategy and policy for the city of Chicago, said that she has seen the phenomenon play out this year.

When Ms. Flynn was working in city government, she said, she regularly met with a high-ranking police official to discuss every shooting in the city related to domestic violence, whether it resulted in injury or death.

In many of those cases, she said, there was no record of the victim previously calling 911 for help or filing for an order of protection in the courts.

“Folks aren’t reaching out,” she said.

In Chicago this year, at least one high-profile domestic homicide case pointed to a lack of communication between law enforcement and the court system. In July, Karina Gonzalez, a 48-year-old Chicago resident, was shot and killed along with her 15-year-old daughter by her husband, Jose Alvarez, prosecutors said, even after she had obtained an order of protection against him weeks before.

Mr. Alvarez’s firearm owner’s identification card — a license required to own a gun in Illinois — had been revoked, but sheriff’s deputies failed to seize his gun and serve him with an order of protection granted by a judge. Mr. Alvarez has pleaded not guilty.

Advocates say that many victims of domestic violence, usually women, may not be contacting the police for help.Credit…Mary Mathis for The New York Times

“All homicides are tragic, but these are so predictable,” Ms. Duval said. “How many situations are there where the victim knows that she’s at risk, does everything possible to avoid the risk, can pinpoint the source of the risk and we still can’t stop it?”

A bill named after Ms. Gonzalez that would tighten gun restrictions on abusers had support in the Illinois legislature but stalled in November. It is expected to be considered again in the spring.

Mayor Brandon Johnson, who took office in May, has vowed to increase the number of domestic violence advocate positions in the Chicago Police Department. Those employees help victims with safety plans, finding housing and obtaining orders of protection, as well as accompanying victims to court.

Aileen Robinson, the assistant director of crime victim services for the Chicago Police, said it was not clear what was driving the increase in domestic shootings. But she said that many victims of violence at home may not know what resources are available to them, and many hesitate to involve the police.

There is still a stigma around violence that occurs at home, she added, and people who are not part of the family may decline to become involved.

“We still live in a community that does not always recognize domestic violence,” she said. “We don’t have sufficient resources when someone identifies that they’re in a dangerous situation and they need to flee. And we still have a value system where you stay in it and stay with it.”

Mr. Johnson has faced an onslaught of crises this year, including a surge of migrants seeking shelter in Chicago who have stressed city resources, and crimes beyond shootings that have alarmed residents, including a large spike in robberies and car thefts throughout the city.

In 2023, there have been more than 28,000 motor vehicle thefts in Chicago, up 40 percent from 2022. Robberies have increased 23 percent, to more than 10,600 incidents in 2023.

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