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Chicagoans Are Worried About Gun Violence. How Are Mayoral Candidates Responding?

Organizers want a community-driven approach to reducing shootings. But most candidates are focused on improving — and investing in — police.

Mayoral candidates (L-R from top row), Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, Paul Vallas, (second row) Willie Wilson and Brandon Johnson.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

This story was originally published by The Trace, a nonprofit newsroom covering gun violence in America. Sign up for its newsletters here.

CHICAGO — By the time she turned 35, Camiella Williams, an organizer with GoodKids MadCity, a youth-led violence prevention organization based in Englewood, had lost almost 50 loved ones to gun violence. Last month, she spent the holidays worried about her 17-year-old cousin, who had been shot seven times on the corner of 59th and Halsted on Christmas Day and as of early January was still recovering.

With Chicago’s mayoral election less than two months away, Williams is worried that no one among the slate of candidates has a feasible plan to quell the violence hurting the people she cares about. Eight candidates are running against incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot on February 28. If none receives over half of the votes, the top two candidates will face off in a runoff election on April 4. Williams is disappointed, she said, that she hasn’t seen the candidates talk in any depth about the underlying causes of gun violence.

“They’re saying they want violence to stop,” she said. “But at the end of the day, a lot of them don’t know what that actually looks like.”

Like most American cities, Chicago has faced a rise in shootings, which peaked in 2021, when 761 people were shot and killed. While that number dipped to 648 in 2022, the new year is off to a violent start. By the second week of 2023, 10 people had already been shot and killed.

Though gun violence hasn’t been a major campaign issue in Chicago the way it is in Philadelphia, the nine mayoral candidates say they prioritize public safety. Seven have said they plan to lower crime by investing in and reinventing the Chicago Police Department. Yet violence prevention organizers like Williams say relying solely on police to curb violence is a mistake, and that the candidates need to focus on the root causes of poverty and disinvestment.

They also worry about the sustainability of fleeting solutions. Jorge Matos is a senior director for READI, which connects men at the highest risk of experiencing violence with resources like transitional jobs and mental health support. He said it’s critical for candidates to create permanent funding for community violence intervention programs in the city budget. “When there’s buy-in and people understand your approach, then you see good results,” Matos said.

Williams said that GoodKids MadCity is reaching out to all the candidates to educate them about the group’s proposed Peace Book Ordinance, which outlines a youth- and community-driven approach to gun violence reduction. While she’s been discouraged by the candidates so far — and not just this year — she’s still pushing Chicagoans to keep voting until they find a leader who will listen.

The Trace reached out to the five candidates at the top of the polls to address the concerns of Williams and her peers. Here’s what the contenders have said — and done — on interrupting gun violence in Chicago.

The Top Five Candidates and Their Approaches to Gun Violence

Two recent polls had different results, but collectively, they established Mayor Lori Lightfoot, U.S. Representative Jesús “Chuy” García, Cook County Board Commissioner Brandon Johnson, former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas, and millionaire businessman Willie Wilson as the five leading candidates. Four of them are proposing similar public safety plans: They would hire more police officers, revamp the Chicago Police Department, and aim to build trust between officers and the community.

Other candidates include retiring City Council members Sophia King (4th) and Roderick Sawyer (6th), state Representative Kam Buckner (D-Chicago), and community activist Ja’Mal Green.

All but two candidates said they would remove police Superintendent David Brown. Wilson was noncommittal, and Lightfoot has defended Brown repeatedly.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Mayor Lori Lightfoot presides over a City Council meeting on Oct. 26, 2022.

Lori Lightfoot

When Lightfoot was elected in 2019, she promised a Chicago with less violence, more transparency, and more accountability. But organizers have called her administration’s approach to gun violence reactive, not proactive. Chicagoans have criticized programs like the Community Safety Coordination Center and the INVEST South/West initiative for excluding residents from the decision-making process. And in Lightfoot’s administration, CPD received a roughly $63 million increase in this year’s budget, bringing its total funds up to nearly $2 billion.

In a response to questions from The Trace that a spokesperson emailed on Lightfoot’s behalf, the mayor said the coordination center has led to a 24 percent decrease in homicides in the 15 selected communities, though her office did not explain how it calculated that number. 

Lightfoot also said in the emailed statement that she plans to address gun violence using a combination of law enforcement and community investments. She said she would utilize the recently created CPD Gun Investigations Team to minimize the illegal circulation of firearms; push the courts to hold violent individuals accountable for their crimes; hold gun dealers accountable through legal action and by advocating for additional resources for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ Chicago field division; and improve police training. She would also continue the Crisis Assistance Response and Engagement pilot program that sends paramedics, mental health clinicians, and police officers trained in intervention to respond to 911 calls related to mental health.

As for community investments, she pledged to continue funding street outreach and community approaches to violence reduction, especially among youth, and supporting various initiatives to rebuild blighted communities and create affordable housing.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Jesús “Chuy” García arrives before announcing that he’s running for mayor of Chicago at Navy Pier on Nov. 10, 2022.

Jesús “Chuy” García

Representative Jesús “Chuy” García hasn’t unveiled a plan to tackle gun violence — despite naming it one of his top priorities. García’s campaign team did not respond to questions from The Trace before publication.

During his mayoral run in 2014, García said he wanted to hire more police officers, attributing Chicago’s violence to an overworked department. In a recent interview with WGN Radio, García said he is conducting listening sessions to understand how his would-be constituents want him to approach reducing violence. He said it’s important to improve the morale of police officers and build trust with residents.

During his time in Congress, García supported gun control legislation, including the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. Moms Demand Action, a grassroots movement fighting for stronger gun laws, has called him a “gun sense candidate.” (Moms Demand Action is affiliated with Everytown for Gun Safety, which provides grants to The Trace through its nonpolitical arm. See our Donor and Financial Transparency policy and our Editorial Independence policy for more information.)

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Mayoral candidate Paul Vallas enters the Northwest Side Chicago Mayoral Candidates Forum at the Copernicus Center in Jefferson Park on Dec. 14, 2022.

Paul Vallas

Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas is also a supporter of legislative gun control. While he praised Chicago for having some of “the toughest gun laws in the country,” he said the city needs to do more to keep guns off the streets. Vallas said he would push the state’s attorney to be more aggressive in convicting people who violate gun laws, install a city crime lab to specifically trace crime guns, and create a city-run witness protection program that allows residents to aid police investigations without fear of retaliation.

He would have CPD give officers more consistent beat assignments in an effort to build trust between residents and police officers — something he said is sorely lacking. At the same time, Vallas said he wants to return to proactive policing that allows officers to make arrests without barriers, instead of the current pursuit policies. He also wants to replace the private security officers assigned to guard public transportation with police officers and add mental health facilities in every police district. 

Like Lightfoot, Vallas is calling for a short- and long-term approach to stemming gun violence: He wants to improve the police department while creating a robust education system. 

As a longtime school district leader, he said education is connected to gun violence because if kids are engaged at school, they’re less likely to get swept up in shootings. He has proposed extending school hours, including during the weekends and summers, and expanding the alternative school network for students who drop out of school or are involved with the criminal legal system.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Mayoral candidate Willie Wilson enters the Northwest Side Chicago Mayoral Candidates Forum at the Copernicus Center in Jefferson Park on Dec. 14, 2022.

Willie Wilson

Businessman Willie Wilson also plans to give the police more say over how they conduct themselves at work.

“We have to take the handcuffs off the police and put them on people who are actually doing [crimes],” Wilson said.

Gun violence is a personal issue for Wilson. Twenty-eight years ago, someone broke into his home and killed his 20-year-old son.

“When they take the casket and lower it down into the grave, the family, half your body and mind go down in the grave with it,” Wilson said. That’s why, he said, it’s important for him to make sure families don’t go through the same thing.

To do that, he’s proposed breaking up the city into four segments — each with its own police superintendent — so that all neighborhoods get sufficient attention from law enforcement, and citizens can better know their officers.

Wilson calls himself “pro-police” but also “pro-neighborhood.” He said to deal with root causes of gun violence, it’s important to empower disenfranchised communities by providing people with job opportunities, such as pathways to trade jobs, and push for a living wage. Where there is poverty, Wilson said, there is crime.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Brandon Johnson, mayoral candidate, speaks in support as hundreds of faculty members at the University of Illinois Chicago and supporters picketed at the school’s quad on Jan. 17, 2023 during the first day of the faculty union’s strike following nine months of contract negotiation.

Brandon Johnson

Cook County Board Commissioner Brandon Johnson also knows firsthand the effects of gun violence — but has a different approach to addressing it.

Johnson lives in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago’s West Side, where gun violence is a daily occurrence. The candidate said he recently had to change a window in his home because a bullet went through it. He said that like other residents, he is fearful of the violence and frustrated that nothing has been done to address it.

Johnson said the city must invest in people by creating jobs programs for Chicago’s youth and reopening the city’s mental health facilities. He is also advocating for the passage of the “Treatment Not Trauma” ordinance, which would dispatch an emergency medical technician and mental health professionals to respond to 911 mental health-related crisis calls instead of law enforcement.

Johnson said the city must reinvest in its basic services, like health care and education, while also building relationships with organizations that already have effective violence intervention programs in place.

“It has been proven that police don’t prevent violence,” Johnson said. “They respond to it.”

As county commissioner, Johnson also helped pass the Just Housing ordinance, which prohibits housing discrimination based on a person’s criminal history, and helped ensure that a historic infusion of $75 million in federal grants were given to organizations and coalitions for an array of evidence-based violence prevention services.

Johnson also passed the nonbinding Justice for Black Lives resolution. The measure gave county commissioners a road map for reallocating money spent on policing and incarceration into job creation, housing, health care, and safety measures to support Black Chicagoans.

“These are not radical ideas,” Johnson said. “It’s only radical when it comes to communities where Black and Brown folks are the primary residents. And that has to change.”