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You cannot legally buy a handgun in Chicago, yet the city is the nation’s most murderous city.
You can own one, but only if you’ve owned it since before 1982, and it’s registered every year with the Chicago Police Department. Gun-control advocates and gun-rights advocates don’t – or can’t – agree on how a city with a handgun ban can lead the nation in murders. To proponents of owning guns, it means the ban doesn’t work.
“Laws are only for law-abiding citizens anyway,” said John Riggio, owner of Chuck’s Gun Shop and Pistol Range in Riverdale. “Criminals, by definition, don’t follow the law.”
But to proponents of regulating guns, it means the ban isn’t big enough.
“Gun control opponents like to look at Chicago and say, ‘They have a handgun ban and look at all their murders,’ but I think, frankly, that’s ignorant,” said Thomas Mennard, executive director of the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence. “They’re not taking into account that you can get handguns just outside of Chicago.”
Indiana Avenue cuts straight south from the Calumet Water Reclamation Plant into Riverdale, past a row of boarded-up and abandoned buildings. At 143rd Street, on the right, sits Chuck’s Gun Shop, one of the closest places to legally buy a handgun outside Chicago’s city limits.
A trip to Chuck’s on a recent weekday morning saw nearly 30 patrons walking through the door in the span of an hour. They were there for guns. Trade-in, apply for, shop or rent – it’s all available at Chuck’s. In 2006 Chuck’s won the Dealer Recruiter of the Year Award from the National Rifle Association for getting the most patrons to join the association.
Employees wear handguns in hip holsters, and before they’ll let customers see or touch anything, they ask to see their Firearm Owner’s Identification card. According to Illinois law, anyone who owns or wants to own a firearm must apply for a “gun card,” as the FOID is commonly known. Once approved, there’s a 72-hour waiting period from the time you buy a handgun to the time you can pick it up.
You can buy as many guns as you want at once, but at Chuck’s you can only take possession of one every 31 days – a Riverdale law. Most of the customers are blue collar, Riggio said, and most of his business is in handgun sales. But he doubts there is any relationship between guns and gun violence.
“I would think there’s no relationship at all,” Riggio said. “Ever seen a gun shoot by itself? I haven’t.”
Riggio declined to provide shop sales figures and demurred when asked whether the Chicago handgun ban has any effect on his business.
“I don’t know if it has an effect one way or another,” Riggio said. “I just follow the law.”
Chicago passed its handgun ban on April 9, 1982. In the wake of a 2008 Supreme Court decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, its legality is being challenged. After the Supreme Court decided that a federal district could not prohibit handguns, the NRA and the Illinois State Rifle Association challenged the Chicago ban. A circuit court judge dismissed the suit but it is currently on appeal before the 7th Circuit.
Jennifer Hoyle, director of public affairs for the city’s law department, stressed that until the courts say otherwise, the city’s handgun ban will remain in effect.
“There have been no changes and it is still being enforced,” she said.
Currently, several hand-gun bills are under consideration in the state legislature. One, for instance, mandates background checks in private gun sales, which currently don’t require them. Another prohibits sales of multiple handguns to one person within a 30-day period. A third bans assault weapons altogether.
The Chicago-based Joyce Foundation, which lists gun violence as one of its six priority issues, chooses not to take sides in the debate over gun control.
“What we are in favor of,” spokesman Charlie Boesel said, “is a reduction in gun violence.”
The foundation offers grant money to groups looking to study the problem or with ideas on how to address it.
“We are very concerned about gun violence in Chicago,” Nina Vinik, the Joyce Foundation gun violence senior program officer, said. “We’re based here so it’s a hometown issue for us.”
Analyzing the gun issue
According to a study released in the spring by the University of Chicago Crime Lab, and funded by the Joyce Foundation, gun violence costs Chicago taxpayers $2.5 billion a year, the equivalent of $2,500 per household. That’s aside from the emotional costs that victims and their families must bear.
The study also found that, too often, programs addressing gun violence lack the kind measured analysis needed by policymakers and expected by the medical community.
“One of the frustrating things is that the criminal justice system has for many, many years been trying programs to address gun violence, but when you go ask them what works and for whom, there’s very little data,” said Harold Pollack, co-director of the Crime Lab and a public health researcher who worked on the study.
There’s no shortage of people working on the problem, and the Crime Lab offers anyone with an idea the chance to get it rigorously tested. Rev. Michael Pfleger, pastor at Saint Sabina’s Catholic Church in Chicago’s Auburn Gresham neighborhood, organizes gun drives and runs the Do You Care? intervention program to teach young people ways to resolve conflicts nonviolently.
He sees the problem as largely a cultural one.
“Kids are armed with guns because it has become part of the wardrobe in America,” Pfleger said. “I’ve never been at a high school in the last year and asked if they needed to get a gun, [or] whether they knew where to get one and not had at least 75 percent of the student body raise their hand.”
Pfleger maintained that the challenge is to create an atmosphere in cities that doesn’t tolerate gun shootings.
“You shoot one of our children, we’re going to put a bounty on your head,” he said.
Law enforcement has its own ways of approaching gun violence. Last weekend, the city hosted its annual summer gun turn-in program. Former Chicago police officer and Cook County state’s attorney John Armellino also suggested that crime is linked with financial destitution.
“Crime is really a function of economics. It is a function of poverty,” he said. “Turf wars are fights over money. Whoever’s got the more lucrative corner to sell drugs is going to protect it.”
The majority of guns used in crimes in Chicago come from Illinois, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Both the mayor’s office of criminal justice and the Chicago Police Department mentioned community policing as among the most important methods of combating gun violence. Sgt. John Delgado, a team leader of the Chicago Police Department’s Community Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS), agreed.
“In my experience, the most organized communities have the best ability to change things,” he said. “My job is to make criminals uncomfortable. If the neighborhood is well-lit and clean, and if people look out for each other and take pride in their property, the likelihood of criminals getting a foothold is greatly diminished.
But, Delgado warned: “If the neighborhood doesn’t care, nothing’s going to change.”