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The murder trial of Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke got under way this week, riveting a city’s attention while putting its systemic issues of racial inequality and economic divide under a harsh national spotlight.

Four years ago, the police officer, who is white, shot black teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times after he was reportedly seen slashing car tires in a neighbourhood on the city’s South Side. The police and the city suppressed the release of dash-cam video of the incident for 13 months before a judge ruled the footage must be released to the public. When it was, the grainy image of the 17-year-old being riddled with bullets ignited protests among the city’s African-American community.

Like many big U.S. cities, Chicago’s glistening façade obscures the ugly realities lurking behind it. On the surface, the city would seem to have it all: stunning architecture, a vibrant cultural scene, immense corporate wealth and a relatively strong economy. But then there is the Chicago you don’t see mentioned in the Chamber of Commerce brochures, or in the write-ups on Trip Advisor. There are some stats that just don’t sell a city.

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In 2015, for instance, there were 485 gun-related homicides. A year later, that number soared to 764. The death toll last year, according to data pulled together by the Chicago Tribune, was 674 – down 15 per cent from the year before. This year, deaths were on pace to be less than each of the two previous years. But the gun violence of this summer has changed that picture and unnerved many living here.

In one three-day weekend in August, there were 74 shootings and 12 fatalities. It seems every night there is a shooting somewhere. On Tuesday of this week, for instance, one man was killed and seven others wounded. The day before, it was two killed, four injured. A group of poor, African-American-dominated communities on the city’s West and South Sides account for an outsized number of gun fatalities. The majority of victims are black men between the ages of 15 to 34. Gangs and drugs play a big role. But so does unrelenting despair, and the social injustice that is haunting the United States more generally.

In this Sept. 18, 2018 photo, Chicago Police Det. Roberto Garcia holds officer Jason Van Dyke's service weapon at the Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago.

Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune via AP

As Ottawa prepares to consult the public on a handgun ban, we should consider the lesson of Chicago: that gun violence is a symptom, not the cause, of much deeper societal issues. The situation in Chicago also helps lend some perspective to what is happening in this country. In 2017, for instance, 39 of Toronto’s 61 murders were the result of a shooting. In 2016, it was 41, up from 26 in 2015 and 27 the year before that. The numbers have increased slightly this year compared with the same period in 2017. Yes, we should deplore gun violence regardless of the numbers. And banning handguns is unquestionably a good idea. But we should also be aware that access to weapons is only part of the problem. The murder plague in many big U.S. cities illustrates that.

Donald Trump can brag all he wants about how well the U.S. economy is doing, how high black employment is, but that belies the on-the-ground realities in places such as Chicago. The fact is, black people in the city are not sharing in the economic wealth, not even close. Not surprisingly, this has caused deeply held resentments. You go into neighbourhoods on the South and West Side at your own risk. Anyone can become a victim. It’s so bad, there are patrols to help kids get to and from school. Partly this ensures they don’t get shot, but also prevents them from being recruited by gangs.

The Laquan McDonald shooting, meantime, has shaken the political foundations of the city. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the former chief of staff to Barack Obama, recently shocked the city establishment by announcing he would not seek a third term. Many have suggested it was fallout from the McDonald case, particularly the alleged cover-up of the dash-cam evidence that was linked to the police and city hall. Garry McCarthy, the police superintendent Mr. Emanuel fired over the matter, is now running for mayor.

“The city’s in a world of hurt right now, and this trial and this election I think are watershed moments in this city’s history,” Mr. McCarthy recently told The New York Times. “Anyone can see we’re taking on water in all compartments.”

Chicago has been called the City of Broad Shoulders. But it bears a burden now that is testing all of its strength and resolve. Gun violence the city has forever been associated with is the symptom of much deeper, more intractable problems.

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