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We were stunned to learn last month that Champaign and Urbana had among the highest numbers of firearm deaths for communities of their size

in the United States. Still, firearm violence is not just a plague on Champaign-Urbana. Other Illinois communities are weighed down with it, too.

Sadly, there’s a relatively new tradition in many newsrooms at this time of the year, chronicling the number of violent deaths in a community in the last year. Locally, there were extraordinarily high numbers of firearm deaths in 2021: 16 in Champaign and 10 in Urbana.

Further, there were 374 confirmed reports of shots fired in the two cities. Add in 43 instances of confirmed shootings in Rantoul, and there were more than 400 shots-fired incidents in three Champaign County communities: more than one a day in a region where just a generation ago such widespread chaotic gunplay was unheard of.

We learned last month, through reporting by News-Gazette Editor Jeff D’Alessio, that few cities of their size in the United States had more gunshot deaths last year than Champaign and Urbana. And of 46 U.S. cities with a population approximating the 126,638 combined residents of Champaign and Urbana, only Hartford, Conn., had more firearm deaths.

Still, this is not just a Champaign-Urbana problem. Among other Illinois cities, Peoria had 34 homicides last year, eclipsing a previous high of 25 homicides in 2019. Chicago had 836 homicides in 2021, its highest number in 25 years.

Other cities had astonishingly high homicide numbers that were not records: 24 lives lost in Rockford, eight in Decatur, six in Danville. Even though fewer lives may have been lost to gunfire in those communities, there were still insanely high numbers of reports of shots fired or victims of gunfire. Decatur had 179 shootings in 2021, up from 54 just five years earlier. Danville had 37 victims of gunshots last year, although three of those were self-inflicted.

What is it that has made Illinois cities in particular, large and small, awash in guns and in gun violence? Further, how have some Illinois cities, notably Bloomington and Normal, been able to avoid the scourge that burdens cities just 40 miles away? And how have other cities been able to make progress on reducing gun crime in recent years?

These questions and others need to be addressed before more young lives are lost and more people decide to leave Champaign-Urbana, Peoria, Chicago and other Illinois communities for safer spaces.

Expanding, volatile gun violence is an Illinois problem and must be addressed on a statewide basis, not left to individual cities, understaffed police departments and unprepared school districts and social service groups to try to solve.

State lawmakers are hoping for a brief, uncomplicated legislative session this spring. Many want to focus on getting re-elected in their new districts. Likewise, Gov. J.B. Pritzker, now seeking a second term.

Doing so, however, ignores the chaos, fear and trauma every bit as threatening to the public safety and the future of Illinois as is COVID-19. Census numbers have confirmed that Black residents of Chicago are fleeing the city in notable numbers, trying to escape violence in their neighborhoods. Anecdotally, we hear of the same kind of exodus from Champaign-Urbana, Danville and other communities.

Illinois’ political leaders can either ignore the problem and hope it goes away, or they can research it, find solutions and fix the problem before thousands more lives are lost and thousands of others leave the state.

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