Strict Gun Laws in Chicago Can’t Stem Fatal Shots
Tuesday, January 29, 2013
by MONICA DAVEY
CHICAGO — Not a single gun shop can be found in
this city because they are outlawed. Handguns were banned in Chicago for
decades, too, until 2010, when the United States Supreme Court ruled that was
going too far, leading city leaders to settle for restrictions some describe as
the closest they could get legally to a ban without a ban. Despite a continuing
legal fight, Illinois remains the only state in the nation with no provision to
let private citizens carry guns in public.
And yet Chicago, a city with no civilian gun ranges
and bans on both assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, finds itself
laboring to stem a flood of gun violence that contributed to more than 500
homicides last year and at least 40 killings already in 2013, including a fatal
shooting of a 15-year-old girl on Tuesday.
To gun rights advocates, the city provides
stark evidence that even some of the toughest restrictions fail to make places
safer. “The gun laws in Chicago only restrict the law-abiding citizens and they’ve
essentially made the citizens prey,” said Richard
A. Pearson, executive director of theIllinois State Rifle Association. To gun
control proponents, the struggles here underscore the opposite — a need for
strict, uniform national gun laws to eliminate the current patchwork of state
and local rules that allow guns to flow into this city from outside.
“Chicago is like a house with two parents
that may try to have good rules and do what they can, but it’s like you’ve got
this single house sitting on a whole block where there’s anarchy,” said the
Rev. Ira J. Acree, one among a group of pastors here who have marched and
gathered signatures for an end to so much shooting. “Chicago is an argument for
laws that are statewide or, better yet, national.”
Chicago’s experience reveals the
complications inherent in carrying out local gun laws around the nation. Less
restrictive laws in neighboring communities and states not only make guns easy
to obtain nearby, but layers of differing laws — local and state — make it
difficult to police violations. And though many describe the local and state
gun laws here as relatively stringent, penalties for violating them — from jail
time to fines — have not proven as severe as they are in some other places,
reducing the incentive to comply.
Lately, the police say they are
discovering far more guns on the streets of Chicago than in the nation’s two
more populous cities, Los Angeles and New York. They seized 7,400 guns here in
crimes or unpermitted uses last year (compared with 3,285 in New York City),
and have confiscated 574 guns just since Jan. 1 — 124 of them last week alone.
More than a quarter of the firearms seized
on the streets here by the Chicago Police Department over the past five years
were bought just outside city limits in Cook County suburbs, according to an
analysis by the University of Chicago Crime Lab. Others came from stores around
Illinois and from other states, like Indiana, less than an hour’s drive away.
Since 2008, more than 1,300 of the confiscated guns, the analysis showed, were
bought from just one store, Chuck’s Gun Shop in Riverdale, Ill., within a few
miles of Chicago’s city limits.
Efforts to compare the strictness of gun
laws and the level of violence across major American cities are fraught with
contradiction and complication, not least because of varying degrees of
coordination between local and state laws and differing levels of enforcement.
In New York City, where homicides and shootings have decreased, the gun laws
are generally seen as at least as strict as Chicago’s, and the state laws in
New York and many of its neighboring states are viewed as still tougher than those in and around
Illinois. Philadelphia, like cities in many states, is limited in writing gun
measures that go beyond those set by Pennsylvania law. Some city officials
there have chafed under what they see as relatively lax state controls.
In Chicago, the rules for owning a handgun
— rewritten after the outright ban was deemed too restrictive in 2010 — sound
arduous. Owners must seek a Chicago firearms permit, which requires firearms training,
a background check and a state-mandated firearm owner’s identification card,
which requires a different background review for felonies and mental illness.
To prevent straw buyers from selling or giving their weapons to people who
would not meet the restrictions — girlfriends buying guns for gang members is a
common problem, the police here say — the city requires permitted gun owners to
report their weapons lost, sold or stolen.
Still, for all the regulations, the
reality here looks different. Some 7,640 people currently hold a firearms
permit, but nearly that many illicit weapons were confiscated from the city’s
streets during last year alone. Chicago officials say Illinois has no
requirement, comparable to Chicago’s, that gun owners immediately report their
lost or stolen weapons to deter straw buyers. Consequently those outside the
city can, in the words of one city official, carry guns to gang members in the
city with “zero accountability.”
And a relatively common sentence in state
court for gun possession for offenders without other felonies is one year in
prison, which really may mean a penalty of six months, said Anita Alvarez, the
Cook County state’s attorney, who said such punishments failed to serve as a
significant enough deterrent for seasoned criminals who may see a modest prison
stint as the price of doing business.
“The way the laws are structured
facilitates the flow of those guns to hit our streets,” Garry F. McCarthy, the
Chicago police superintendent, said in an interview, later adding, “Chicago may
have comprehensive gun laws, but they are not strict because the sanctions don’t
In the weeks since the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., Toni
Preckwinkle, the Cook County Board president, has introduced a
countywide provision requiring gun owners beyond the city limits to report lost
or stolen guns, though a first offense would result simply in a $1,000 fine. In
the city, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has pressed for increased penalties for those who violate
the city’s gun ordinance by failing to report their guns missing or possessing
an assault weapon.
“Our gun strategy is only as strong as it
is comprehensive, and it is constantly being undermined by events and
occurrences happening outside the city — gun shows in surrounding counties,
weak gun laws in neighboring states like Indiana and the inability to track
purchasing,” Mr. Emanuel said. “This must change.”
State lawmakers, too, are soon expected to
weigh new state provisions like an assault weapons ban, as Chicago already has.
But the fate of the proposals is uncertain in a state with wide-open farming
and hunting territory downstate.
“It’s going to be a fight,” said State
Representative Jack D. Franks, a Democrat from Marengo, 60 miles outside
Chicago. Complicating matters, an appellate court in December struck down the
state’s ban on carrying guns in public, saying that a complete ban on concealed
carry is unconstitutional. Illinois is seeking a review of the ruling, even as
state lawmakers have been given a matter of months to contemplate conditions
under which guns could be allowed in public.
Many here say that even the strictest,
most punitive gun laws would not alone be an answer to this city’s violence. “Poverty,
race, guns and drugs — you’ve got to deal with all these issues, but you’ve got
to start somewhere” said the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, who was arrested in 2007
while protesting outside Chuck’s Gun Shop, the suburban store long known as a
supplier of weapons that make their way to Chicago.
At the store, a clerk said the business
followed all pertinent federal, state and local laws, then declined to be
interviewed further. Among seized guns that had moved from purchase to the
streets of Chicago in a year’s time or less, nearly 20 percent came from Chuck’s,
the analysis found. Other guns arrived here that rapidly from gun shops in
other parts of this state, Indiana, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Mississippi, Georgia,
Iowa and more.
“Chicago is not an
island,” said David Spielfogel, senior adviser to Mr. Emanuel. “We’re only as
strong as the weakest gun law in surrounding states.”