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Chicago considers efforts to curtail gun violence

By Andrew Stern

CHICAGO (Reuters) - When 10 people were fatally shot and 44 wounded during a balmy June weekend in Chicago, the city was rebranded as a symbol of out-of-control urban violence reminiscent of gangster Al Capone's bloody reign in the 1920s.

Thanks to a Supreme Court ruling this week undermining Chicago's strict handgun ban, law-abiding residents will soon be able to legally own a handgun.

Mayor Richard Daley criticized the ruling as likely to fuel more violence and proposed new restrictions including a handgun registry, firearms training for owners and a requirement that people have just one gun readily available for self-defense.

The Chicago City Council on Friday passed the mayor's swiftly prepared new gun rules by 45 votes to zero.

But experts trying to quell the street violence say illegal guns are plentiful and gun control laws do not address the underlying problem -- weapons in the hands of poor, angry and frustrated residents who open fire over drug-dealing turf and the smallest slights.

"Chicago is known to be a gangster city all the way back to the Al Capone days," said Tio Hardiman, director of the group CeaseFire, which employs former gang members as counselors to defuse confrontations. "People expect violence in Chicago ... we have a subculture of violence."

"You can buy a gun (illegally) just as easy as a pair of bootlegged gym shoes or a fake Gucci purse," he said.

Estimates vary but there are nearly enough guns in circulation in the United States to arm each of the nation's 300 million people.

Hardiman said giving residents the right to own guns is not likely to intimidate tens of thousands of gang members in Chicago -- as some gun rights proponents contend it could -- but may instead encourage a "cowboy" mentality.

So far this year there have been more than 200 murders in Chicago, President Barack Obama's hometown. The city is about on pace for the five-year average of nearly 500 murders and roughly 1,800 shootings annually.

VIOLENT NEIGHBORHOODS

A report last year by the University of Chicago's Crime Lab estimated that each gunshot wound victim costs the city $1 million in medical, law enforcement and other costs, and each murder caused the departure of 70 people from the city.

Many of Chicago's killings this year have been in the city's impoverished West and South sides. All too frequently, children have been among the bystanders hit by gunfire, stirring consternation and triggering anti-violence marches.

But perpetrators are unmoved, said Victor Woods, an activist who speaks at prisons and to other groups.

Decades of neglect have left some neighborhoods with rampant joblessness, poor schools and broken families, leading to despair and violence, he said.

After a particularly bloody weekend in April, Police Chief Jody Weis took issue with comparisons of Chicago's streets to Iraq.

"We are not Chi-raq," he said. "We are Chicago."

A debate ensued among newspaper columnists over whether residents in wealthier, white areas cared about the violence.

Last year, the violent deaths of dozens of Chicago public school students and the videotaped beating death of a 16-year-old student by classmates were the focus of attention. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder paid a visit and deemed the violence unacceptable.

This year, some experts fear the city will suffer through a violent summer amid high unemployment. They cited the defeat in the U.S. Congress of a summer jobs program that would have employed as many as 10,000 Chicago youths for six weeks.

"There will be consequences ... there could be riots," education expert Jack Wuest said of the failed jobs bill.

An Illinois state legislator suggested calling out the National Guard to help police violent neighborhoods, an idea rejected by the mayor.

"With school out and summer here, I want to remind all Chicagoans that we all have a responsibility to end the cycle of violence that plagues too many of our neighborhoods and takes our children from us," Daley said in announcing a program that enlists 40 churches to run programs for 1,000 youngsters.

Woods called for more action.

"In Chicago, we're just having a bunch of double-talk," he said. "Until we realize we have a problem that we can't control, that we can't arrest our way out of it, we can't imprison our way out of it ... there's always going to be a new crop of shooters. You can find him in second grade right now."

(Additional reporting by Nick Carey; Editing by John O'Callaghan)

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