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Chicago gets bad rap, but gun violence in Buffalo isn't much better

The number of shootings in Chicago exploded last year and became the focus of a national discussion on gun violence.

But over the last six years, the risk of being shot in Buffalo was nearly as high as the risk faced by residents of the Windy City.

In the five years before Chicago's shootings exploded in 2016, Buffalo and Chicago were neck and neck in the number wounded or killed by gunfire per 100,000 residents, according to a Buffalo News analysis.

Buffalo actually had a higher rate of shootings than Chicago twice in the last six years, The News found by examining Buffalo Police and Census data, along with Chicago shooting data published by the Chicago Tribune.

From 2011 through 2015, for every 100,000 residents, 98 people were shot in Chicago and 94 in Buffalo.

Buffalo Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda said he believes it is unfair to compare crime statistics among Buffalo and other places.

“We don’t compare ourselves to any other city,” he said. “We compare Buffalo to Buffalo.”

Others take a different view.

“To off-hand just simply assert that you can’t make a comparison between cities when it comes to shooting victims is nonsensical,” said James J. Sobol, associate professor of criminal justice and department chair at SUNY Buffalo State. “In all disciplines, we make comparisons and we do so by bringing the data into a common format. It is the basis by which we gain a better understanding of complex phenomena."

A complete picture on how Buffalo compares to all other cities across the United States is not possible now because data combining fatal and non-fatal shootings is not readily available from many law enforcement agencies. Experts have called for a national requirement for police agencies to count the number of people shot as part of regular data gathering.

Chicago vs. Buffalo

Chicago’s level of violence was thrust into the national discussion during last year's presidential campaign. The focus came in part because of the startling surge in shootings: 4,368 people were wounded or killed in Chicago last year, according to the Chicago Tribune. Chicago’s shooting rate jumped by 65 percent when compared to the city's prior five-year average.

In 2016, 161 of every 100,000 residents in Chicago were shot. In Buffalo, 115 people of every 100,000 were shot last year.

During a meeting with black community leaders earlier this year, President Trump applauded a proposal for him to meet with Chicago gang leaders, according to the New York Post.

“That’s a great idea because Chicago is totally out of control,” the president told a Chicago pastor, according to the Post. “If they’re not going to solve the problem — and what you’re doing is the right thing — then we’re going to have to solve the problem for ’em. … Because what’s happening in Chicago should not be happening in this country.”

In raw numbers, Chicago has far more shootings than Buffalo.

But Chicago, with about 2.7 million people, has about 10 times the number of residents as Buffalo, with 256,902.

That's why comparing shooting rates rather than raw numbers is a fairer way to compare crime in communities of different size, according to social scientists.

Like Chicago, Buffalo also saw a surge in gun violence in 2016. There was an 18 percent increase in the number of people shot last year compared to the prior five-year average.

Buffalo police told New York State that 296 people were wounded or killed by gunfire in 2016. A Buffalo News analysis of Buffalo police crime data had put that number at 288 people: 254 wounded and 34 killed.

Gun violence in other cities

Buffalo is far from alone among U.S. cities battling gun violence.

Rochester, Buffalo’s slightly smaller neighbor just down the Thruway, had a slightly higher average shooting rate than Buffalo from 2011 through 2015, according to a News analysis of statistics provided by the state Division of Criminal Justice Services.

Over those years, 95 of every 100,000 Rochesterians were shot, one more victim than in Buffalo., a journalism outlet focusing on data analysis, found the U.S. city with the highest shooting rate in 2016 was not Chicago but Detroit, which saw 179 people shot for every 100,000 residents.

The site did not publish information on Buffalo. But Buffalo would have had a lower shooting rate last year than seven other cities on the list: Detroit, Chicago, Baltimore, New Orleans, Cincinnati, Atlanta and Newark.

Buffalo's rate for 2016 was higher than Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Louisville, Nashville, Charlotte, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York City, based on FiveThirtyEight's findings.

Buffalo's gun violence

A News analysis published last month found 1,286 people were shot in Buffalo from 2011 through last year.

Three-quarters of all shootings in Buffalo over those six years occurred on the city’s East Side, where only a third of the city’s population lives, the News analysis found. That means that part of the city and the people who live there bear a disproportionate burden of dealing with gun violence.

[Related: Map of shootings in Buffalo, 2011-16]

Many victims of shootings in Buffalo are people engaged in risky behavior, such as buying or selling drugs and gang lifestyles.

But bullets also hit children and other innocent bystanders.

Lexi Behan, 13, while being treated at Women and Children's Hospital in Buffalo for a gunshot wound to the chest. She was struck July 6 while on the porch of her home. (Photo provided by Behan's brother, Gabor Karpati)

Thirteen-year-old Lexi Behan was shot July 6 by a stray bullet while she sat with family members on the porch of her West Side home on Breckenridge Street.

The bullet pierced her chest, went through both lungs, tore a hole in her esophagus and got lodged in her right shoulder.

The teen survived the shooting but was under sedation and in a medically induced coma at Women & Children’s Hospital.

Meg Sano, a close family friend to Behan's family who has been serving as a family spokeswoman, said Lexi has gone through multiple surgeries and will require a lot of further medical care.

To Sano, Buffalo has a gun problem and the issue needs to be discussed with an eye towards the individuals and families who are affected.

"We really have to talk about the victims because they're really victims and they really suffer," she said.

City Hall: Crime is down

It remains to be seen if gun violence will emerge this year as an issue in the Buffalo mayor's race.

The News requested an interview about the rate of shootings in Buffalo with Mayor Byron W. Brown, who is running for a fourth term. A spokesman for the mayor did not respond to the request.

City officials argue that Buffalo is succeeding in combating crime because overall crime rates are lower now than they were in 2005, the year before Brown took office. That trend mirrors the nationwide violent and property crime rates over the same period.

Over the last 25 years, Buffalo’s overall violent crime rate was at its highest in the early to mid-1990s, according to FBI statistics.

Buffalo’s violent crime rate in 2014 was lower than it was in 2005, though the figure surged in 2006 and around 2009, as well.

“One shooting, one homicide, one violent incident is one too many,” Derenda said.

Shooting data for Buffalo was not available for years prior to 2006.

Anti-violence advocate's take

Nonviolence advocates on Buffalo’s streets know the toll shootings take, especially on young people and their families.

Tina Sanders, who runs a nonprofit called No More Tears that works with at-risk youth, believes the key to reducing shootings and solving more shootings in Buffalo is getting more people to assist police.

But that’s difficult because many people don’t trust the police, Sanders said.

“The only time a young person has interaction with the police is when he’s trying to snatch somebody out of the house or they’re kicking doors in,” Sanders said.

Sanders said she was surprised when she first heard Buffalo and Chicago have comparable shooting rates, adding that she can understand the comparison between Chicago and Buffalo.

But Buffalo has a chance to stop things from getting worse, she said.

Sanders said she believes Chicago gangs operate on a much more sophisticated level than gangs in Buffalo. Gangs were stronger in Buffalo back in the 1980s, she said.

Sanders believes educating people in Buffalo about what it really takes for law enforcement to get convictions of those involved in shootings would help get more people willing to help authorities. Some people also need help getting out of the criminal life, and providing job opportunities is one way to do that, she said.

“We need people out here that’s willing to go into those areas that others aren’t willing to go, that’s what I believe,” she said. “We need to dig and get deep in the trenches and say, ‘Hey. Enough is enough.’ ”

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