Addressing our “dangerous” city

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On Feb. 10, The New York Times published a piece regarding the notable increase in murders in St. Louis over the past few years.  “There was a 33 percent rise in homicides last year, to 159, compared with 120 in 2013 in this city of 318,000,” wrote Erik Eckholm. 2015 has had a bloody beginning as well, with seven people murdered in the first 15 days of the year.

The Editorial Board decided to discuss the explanations of why this city has seen a proliferation in murders while other cities’ murder rates have decreased. We also wanted to talk about the implications that these stories have on outsider perspectives  of St. Louis, as well as our own perceptions of the city.

The first thought that many of us had regarding the increasing murder rate was the proliferation of available guns. Apparently, this was The New York Times’ first thought as well: “By all accounts, the proliferation of guns among young men here is beyond control.” In the same article, Michael Shelton added, “It’s nothing to get a firearm.”

Some in our editorial board believe that more comprehensive gun control would help limit everybody’s ability to obtain a gun. Many of us believe that many of the guns obtained are not legally obtained, so a restriction on legal guns could help curb illegal gun purchases as well. One editor argued that gun control would do more to reduce murders across the country. He used the example of the three Muslim Americans who were murdered, execution style, in their home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, on Feb. 10. Others believe it would be a tough sell to propose stringent gun laws to the ardent supporters of Second Amendment rights who aren’t contributing to violence in the city.

Other editors argued that murder rates in St. Louis are more complicated than access to guns. They cited how unemployment, poverty and lack of adequate educational opportunities may lead to a sense of hopelessness. One editor argued that gang activity is prevalent when there is no other option available and that drug use may be an effort to grapple with that hopelessness. Therefore, a focus on social disillusionment could be just as useful as the focus on the prevalence of guns in the area.

Then we started talking about how stories like these about St. Louis shape other people’s perspectives about the city. This is the second time in the past two years that St. Louis has been featured in The New York Times because of its murder rate. When members of the Editorial Board decided to come to SLU, many of our family members warned us of the ominous threat that is St. Louis. “Be safe,” said one; another stated offhandedly after returning home for winter break, “Oh, you survived!”

Even from people in the area, the city is seen as a dangerous place, a place not to walk through at night, and, in some areas, even during the day. The New York Times article mentioned that many of the murders are limited to eight neighborhoods. Despite this limited range of violence, much of the city is stigmatized, especially the north side. An extremely common refrain heard at SLU is “Don’t go past the Fox.” This widespread fear is an unfair representation of the city and its people.

In the end, we discussed the possibility that these stats don’t mean all that much. Most of us are not negatively impacted by the wanton violence in the city. Our preoccupation with the stats seems detached from the people most impacted by them. Instead of complaining about St. Louis’ reputation amidst the recurring stats about murder, maybe we should think more about why we feel so personally removed from the people in the firing line.