By Carol Thompson, Irika Sargent
CHICAGO (CBS) — In America’s third largest city, the police scanners barely rest.
Riding with Cook County Sheriff’s Police, we see some neighborhoods notoriously face more challenges than others do.
“This area is a high crime area,” Lt. Arthur Jackson pointed out as he drove through Austin. It is a community with a lot of gang activity, he noted.
“We’ve arrested a number of people just on that corner,” he said.
On one block, he spotted this: “Looks like a drug deal just went down behind us.”
We heard scanner traffic calling for help because of “A person with a gun.”
It was on Chicago’s West Side where we found many kids are wiser than their years in some of the most dangerous ways. We listened as they told us how easy it is to get a gun.
“All it take is one phone call,” said one teenager.
“You can find it on the streets or people will sell ’em to you,” said another one.
It’s so easy, kids are getting their hands on guns before getting out of high school or even elementary school.
One boy, now 19, told us he first held a gun when he was just 15 years old. A girl, now 21, said she was 4 years old when she held her first gun.
“You can find a gun anywhere in our neighborhood,” said another boy, now 20 years old.
It took months to find kids willing to have candid conversations with us. Some families feared retaliation on their blocks. However, as we spent time with the kids, they opened up about their access to guns and experiences with violence in their communities.
One 10-year-old boy told us about the time when he was 8, hanging out outside with friends.
“They just started shooting,” he said.
He also talked about how easy he thought it would be for even young kids to get their hands on guns.
We concealed the identities of that youngster and others courageous enough to speak out because of their age and for their safety.
An 11-year-old boy spoke up about living with a father who was in a gang and seeing guns passed around in his neighborhood. He also told us about the time he was caught in the middle of a shootout near a church, having to run behind a tree to escape being shot.
Others, now young adults, want to show their faces. All of them put a voice to an epidemic now in Illinois, and especially in Chicago.
“I always felt the urge, like I want to be around guns,” said 21-year-old Arianna.
It appears hundreds of other young people also want to be around guns.
CBS 2 analyzed new data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). It reveals in 2018, Illinois had one of the highest numbers of firearms recovered from children at nearly 600.
[insert data visualization from Chris Hacker here]
“[It’s] a very serious issue and we can see that in the numbers,” said Special Agent-in-Charge Tim Jones.
Illinois consistently ranked among the top five states in the country every year, for the last 6 years from 2013 through 2018. The number of guns recovered from kids has gone up nearly 50% in that time.
We asked a 16-year-old girl we call Danielle to tell us at what point she felt like she wanted a gun.
“When I lose people,” she answered.
Danielle said at least 10 of her family members and friends have been shot and killed. The most recent casualty, her ex-boyfriend, just days before we sat down with her.
“It’s not going to stop,” she said.
She can get a gun from friends.
Devontay Williams is now 20. He admits he used to be a drug dealer and carried a gun at 16.
He revealed to us that he has shot a gun on the streets before. And talked about how easy it is to get guns for free. He says they’re often stashed by someone else. He found a gun that way.
“In an alley right on 50th and Ridgeway, we found it. We was walking, looking around on the ground. And it was behind a garbage can, behind a wheel,” Williams said.
Lt. Jackson with the Sheriff’s Police knows that guns are often hidden on the street or in alleys, but he was surprised to hear that kids know about that and how to get their hands on them.
Devontay also has experience being on the other end of a gun, shot at 16 by a boy the same age.
“I thought I was going to die because there was so much blood on the ground,” he said.
A 16-year-old boy, whom we’ll call Henry, held his first gun at age 10. It came from a cousin and over the years other guns came from friends his age. He says getting one from an adult is just as easy.
“Even grown people like they hand you guns and just like keep it on the streets,” he said.
SAC Jones says he has seen adult gang members, who don’t want to get caught with guns, exploit kids by handing the weapons off to them.
“Because if a juvenile gets caught with a firearm the likelihood of them being severely punished is rather low,” he said.
Jones said federal law does not allow many ways to prosecute kids with guns, so it falls on local law enforcement like Chicago Police and prosecutors. And because of the high rate of gun violence on the West Side, the Cook County Sheriff’s Police with Lt. Jackson, have come in to help CPD, setting up a command post in the heart of Austin.
“They’ve had shootings up and down throughout these neighborhoods,” said Lt. Jackson.
But even when local police arrest a kid with a gun, state laws often let them off with little punishment. Young offenders could be back on the streets in hours.
So now, State Rep. Anthony DeLuca of south suburban Chicago Heights is pushing a state bill to stop kids from getting off with just probation when they’re caught with a gun more than once.
Back on the West Side, Lt. Jackson says Sheriff’s officers aren’t relying only on the law to stop the violence.
“Our goal is really to try to reach them early before they even get to that point,” said Lt. Jackson. Police do that through mentoring programs in west side schools.
Derek Brown is a former Vice Lords gang chief.
“This corner is like the center of violence in North Lawndale. Across the street is called the Holy City because that’s the birthplace of the Vice Lords, and to your right going west, that is called K-Town,” he said.
He admits that he shot at people and gotten shot in the past. Now, he focuses on mentoring, sharing his troubled history with kids and showing them a better way.
Brown works closely with the Rev. Robin Hood, who counsels kids and helps them find jobs.
“They had easier access to guns than a bus pass to go to school or work,” said Rev. Hood about the kids he counsels.
Neither man believes locking up kids solves the problem, especially when the opinions and laws come from people who don’t live in these neighborhoods or know the kids like they do.
“That child should be directed to the right program so he or she can get reprogrammed so they wouldn’t have the sense of they want to hurt someone,” said Brown.
“If I can stop one from shooting and killing somebody – If I can just save one, I will be happy,” said Rev. Hood.
Brown and Hood say they have already exceeded that goal, changing the behavior of several kids.
Remember Devontay? He says Brown’s Boxing Out Negativity program is starting to work for him.
“I just start being here a little more often. Some days I’d miss him and I be like I missed a day. I could have learned something.”
But with streets, where guns are so easy for kids to come by, there’s no denying the answers are complex. And voices like these remain.
“I picked up a gun,” said 20-year-old Jermaine.
“I’ve held a gun, yeah, plenty of times,” said 19-year-old Isiah. He also says he’s lost so many people to gun violence it’s hard to keep count.
The bill proposed by Rep. DeLuca is stuck in committee at the moment, opposed by Black Caucus members in the legislature. However, he hopes a hearing on the measure will take place when lawmakers return to Springfield in early 2020