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Peoria's struggles with rising gun violence in recent years are far from unique among similarly-sized U.S. cities

High murder rates in big cities can be a convenient bogeyman for politicians looking to rack up some easy talking points. But sometimes, the problem is proportionally worse in your own backyard.

That was the case in Peoria in 2021. The city saw a record-high 34 homicides that year. Most of them were committed with firearms. The numbers crunched out to 25 gun deaths per 100,000 people in Peoria that year; much higher than Chicago's 15 gun deaths per 100,000 people.

 Magic Wade
Magic Wade

Those are among the findings by Magic Wade, a researcher at the University of Illinois Springfield who's tracking firearm homicide and injury data from more than 1,300 large, midsized, and small cities across the United States.

Her most recent published work analyzed data collected between 2015 and 2021. Anecdotally, she said firearm homicide and injury rates in many cities surpassed those experienced during the 1990s. The spike in those rates started in 2019 and 2020, culminating in 2021. She said while large cities do make up a large share of gun-related homicides, more than 40% of firearm homicides are actually happening in cities with populations of less than 250,000 people.

"Small cities had just historic increases in gun violence. And Peoria is an excellent example of that," she said. "Peoria is no stranger to firearm violence. There's usually been about a homicide a month in Peoria for the last several years of at least my data, but when that goes up to (more than) 30 homicides in a particular year, that's a very huge shock to the community."

Peoria's firearm homicide rate per 100,000 was the highest among Illinois cities included in Wade's dataset in 2021, but she said there's more than 100 cities in her dataset that exceeded even Peoria's rate. Cities with similar rates include Kalamazoo, Mich.; Akron, Ohio; and Albany, Ga.

"We're seeing that on a national level, there's this increase in firearm homicides, and there's very few places that are really immune from it," Wade said. "So some states definitely have more cities with elevated firearm homicide rates, but there's very few states with none."

Wade believes getting more murders solved is key. Homicide clearance rates have declined nationally for decades. Homicide clearance rates of Black victims, particularly Black men, are much lower than those of white victims, she noted.

"Getting that homicide clearance rate up is essential to getting the problem under control, because it is a miniscule number of individuals in communities that are perpetuating violence. It is less than 1/10 of a percent of the population that commits a homicide," she said.

But Wade said that small number of people committing shootings drive cycles of retaliation or retribution that ultimately lead to more violence.

She said a strong law enforcement response is important, but so too is forming a coalition also including in the fold community service groups, hospitals, schools, government, and others who can help build trust. Some cities, like Peoria, are launching violence interruption initiatives as one facet of a broader response.

"We have to have resources to address it. And small cities don't necessarily have large budgets that they can carve off for some of these new initiatives that they're trying and furiously debating, like violence interruption programs, and how much funding to give to them," Wade said.

The next steps of Wade's research will look at which communities are most vulnerable to gun violence, and which are most resilient. Part of that work will involve looking at the cities using COVID-19 relief funds on violence prevention projects, which communities are turning the tide on crime rates with those one-time funds, and how they can map out a long-term game plan.

"When the resources are scarce, then how will cities, especially smaller ones with limited budgets, be able to continue the efforts that have been effective? And so that's going to be essential moving forward in my research," she said.

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.