Out of America: Gun law's reward for pistol-packers who play ball

CHICAGO - To talk of full-scale rehabilitation would be to stretch the point. But like it or not (and many in this town still do not) the most celebrated citizen in its history is at last an acknowledged tourist attraction. I refer of course to Al Capone. Mention the word Chicago around the world and Capone, not skyscrapers or art collections, is the instant association. For decades he was a non-person, airbrushed from Chicago's official past like Trotsky in the old Soviet Union. But in the Midwest, as in Moscow, truth and considerations of foreigners' hard cash have carried the day.

Now you may take a tour of gangster-era sites. You may eat, drink and dance at a nightspot called Tommy Gun's Garage, whose phone number is 312/Rat-A-Tat. And since last June, Big Al even has his own downtown museum, called Capone's Chicago. Almost benignly, he presides over a multi-media show, a 'themed family attraction', in which the Roaring Twenties are all yours for dollars 4.75 (pounds 3). For all the crackling gunfire, our hero emerges as creature of a period which produced not just the 'Chicago typewriter', but enduring wonders of modern architecture and music. Once again old Scarface has the image-making business all to himself.

But spend a few days in the real Chicago of autumn 1993, and you wonder what the fuss is about. For one thing, Michael Jordan, who led the Bulls to three straight basketball championships, has grounded himself forever and is already history. A hardskinned, sports-obsessed city could soon have new heroes. 'Go Sox', implore the posters festooning a thousand South Side bars and eateries, and after an improbable resurrection at the weekend in the baseball playoffs in Toronto, the Chicago White Sox still have a shot at making it into this year's World Series. More important, by today's standards Capone and his henchmen were firing rubber bullets. The mayhem wrought by the hoodlums of the Prohibition era pales beside the contemporary carnage on the streets.

Like every metropolis in America, modern Chicago is obsessed by one thing above all else - violent crime. Over the five bloodiest years of the 20s, some 400 gangsters died. In each of 1991 and 1992, there were more than 900 murders in the city; the rate is down this year, but still on course to top 800. Youth offers no protection; 55 children under 15 have already been killed, 28 of them shot dead. As anywhere else in the US, the reason is simple: guns, guns and more guns, sold like confetti despite a crackdown by Mayor Richard Daley. Capone, 'Bugs' Moran and the rest of them at least went after specific targets. It is the random element of today's slaughter that is so terrifying. The slaughter of 70 years ago and the slaughter now have but one common strand: both are proof that if you ban something in popular demand, the criminals will move in to provide it. For Capone it was alcohol. Today's equivalent is drugs, and the high-risk, huge-profit culture their trafficking has spawned.

But in a sense the wheel has come full circle. In a fortnight's time, Chicago will host the latest in a series of national pow-wows of gangleaders from around the country. This being the 1990s, the affair is called a convention, with an ostensible agenda concerned not with non-aggression pacts between Mafia clans but plain old PR, studded with worthy topics such as police brutality, economic development and the constitutional validity of anti-gang laws. And playing to Chicago's sporting instincts, the city fathers are trying to do something about the guns too.

Next Saturday, pistol-packers of all ages have been invited to hand over their weapons, no questions asked, at a dozen sites across Chicago. For this act of public-spiritedness, the organisers are offering prizes of tickets to either a Bulls or White Sox game. The Sox? Back in Capone's day the very thought would have been laughable. Chicago's Age of Infamy truly began not with the wars of the bootlegging gangs but earlier still, when the White Sox (branded for ever the Black Sox) took bribes from a gambling syndicate to throw the 1919 World Series. A repeat disgrace in 1993, even in these crime-ridden times, is one thing that is truly unthinkable.

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