Guns: Chicago, its suburbs and a multi-state solution

Not until the epidemic of gun violence in the City of Chicago stretches into its suburbs will policy makers be forced to reform gun laws.

The political will of city lawmakers is not lacking for gun control. Laws have been on the books for years, and new laws are promulgated regularly. In 2009, the city passed a law banning assault rifles. In 2010, the city passed an ordinance that banned gun shops in the city. Even the NRA believes the city has strong gun control laws.

What is more, background checks for purchasing guns in the state have been on the books for years and are the norm. The problem, according to Sarah Emmons, a researcher at the University of Chicago’s Chicago Crime Lab, stems from disparate gun laws just a few miles from the city, particularly across the state line. “You can be in the city of Chicago and be closer to a gun show in Indiana than you are to downtown,” Emmons said. “Having such dramatically different regulations in such close proximity makes it really, really easy for folks [to bring illegal guns into Chicago].”

A 2015 study by the institute estimated that only 11 percent of crime guns recovered in Chicago were purchased from federally licensed vendors, which require background checks, and that many were passed or sold through social networks. They cited straw purchases — where one person buys a gun for a person who cannot legally purchase one — as a major contributor to the city’s underground gun market.

According to a 2014 report from the Chicago Police Department, between 2009 and 2013, almost 60 percent of guns used to commit crimes in Chicago were first purchased outside of Illinois. Each state in the country contributed at least one gun used in a Chicago crime. — nearly 20 percent came from Indiana, the second-highest state after Illinois.

Recent statistics are staggering. By the end of a violent Labor Day weekend this year, Chicago had reached a grim milestone, recording more homicides through the holiday than the city experienced during all of last year. Michael Pfleger, one of the city’s most outspoken and visible anti-gun activists and a pastor at Saint Sabina Church, likens the killings to a natural disaster. “We have a flood and fire and earthquake of violence and blood on our streets,” he said.

Perhaps epidemiology is a more apropos place to find a metaphor for the problem. A natural disaster has an abrupt end. A disease festers and often kills.

The city of Chicago has demonstrably shown it wants, but cannot keep, guns off its streets. Politically, however, it has little influence. Statewide, there is insufficient support for more laws, in part because Illinois ranks in the lower fifth of states for gun deaths.

Not until gun violence reaches Chicago’s more affluent neighborhoods and suburbs will political support for tighter gun control find a footing. At present, the uneven distribution of gun violence across the city shows stark concentrations on the south and west side. But that may soon attenuate. An analysis by New World Wealth found that there was an outflow of 3,000 millionaires from the city in 2015. Filling this void will be households of more more modest means and a general depressing of incomes across the city. A negative correlation between gun violence and income has gone hand-in-hand.

The most tenable immediate solution to mitigate the violence is to lobby the State of Indiana to tighten its gun laws. This will be a challenge from the go, as Indiana has some of the most lax guns laws in the nation, having recently passed legislation making it legal to manufacture, sell or own a sawed-off shotgun. Moreover, addressing the problem of proximity of loose gun laws in Indiana will not affect the problem of guns arriving from other states.

A multi-state solution may be the most feasible route, but even this will require consensus in the Illinois legislature, which will need first to enlist suburban leaders and activists with Chicago’s anti-gun groups. The challenge will be one of interests: those 3,000 millionaires moved from the city to escape the problem, and may not necessarily feel compelled to address it. Neither is gun violence yet as pressing a problem in the suburbs. Short of waiting until the suburbs begin to see rising rates of gun use, something needs to be done, and consensus at the state level seems unlikely without the strength of Chicago’s populous suburbs.

It’s time the well-to-do offspring of modernity’s greatest city pay homage to its parent. Something needs to be done, and the City of Chicago hasn’t the ability to do it by itself. A suburban coalition needs to materialize to help city activists apply pressure at the state level to propose a bilateral gun law with Indiana, or better still, reach a multi-state solution to interstate gun traffic with Illinois’ Midwestern neighbors.


William Olson

Schaumburg, IL




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