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Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot is just as clueless as Mayor Bill de Blasio on how to fight the sharp increase in the already high homicide rate in Chicago, but she certainly knows who to blame for it; Republicans in Congress and the “gun lobby.” Speaking on MSNBC Friday, the mayor bemoaned the absence of a federal universal background check law, saying that without the provision people can go to Indiana from Chicago and “get military-grade weapons in quantities and then bring them back to the streets and shoot people up. That’s what’s happening.”
That’s, uh, not what’s happening. And even if it was happening, a federal universal background check law wouldn’t do anything to stop the illicit trade in firearms. State-level laws certainly haven’t ended the practice, as Lightfoot well knows.
Lori Lightfoot may want to blame gun control laws for Chicago’s violent crime because it absolves her of any responsibility to meaningfully improve things, but she’s lying to her constituents when she does so. The fact is, Lightfoot can take concrete steps that would dramatically reduce the number of shootings and homicides in Chicago without the need for a single new gun law at either the state or federal level.
Take a look at the 2018 gun trace data from the ATF for the state of Illinois (you can download it here). There were 14,062 firearms that were recovered that year, but only 10,504 total traces were successfully conducted. It turns out that 5,337 firearms, more than half of all the guns traced by the ATF, were originally sold in Illinois. By comparison, there were 1,548 firearms recovered in Illinois that were traced back to an Indiana sale.
Yes, some guns are coming into Illinois from Indiana, Missouri, and almost every other state of the union, but the number one source state for firearms traced in Illinois is Illinois, which has universal background checks, a firearms owner identification card requirement, and a host of other gun control laws on the books. Mayor Lightfoot can’t acknowledge that fact, because then she’d have to acknowledge that maybe universal background check laws aren’t as effective as she and other anti-gun politicians claim.
Let’s start with the fact that there is no way to proactively police or enforce a background check on a private sale of a firearm. 99% of the time, law enforcement won’t even be aware that the sale is taking place, particularly if it’s between family or friends. The only way a violation of the law would ever be noticed would be if a criminal were caught with a gun, and they managed to trace it back to someone who admits they sold the gun without a background check.
The problem is, not only does the law do nothing to stop the illegal private sales of firearms, charges are rarely if ever brought in court. Go do an Internet search for something like “sold gun without background check prosecution” and let me know if you find any news stories about someone facing charges. I looked, figuring I could find at least one story, but I came up empty. That’s not to say that they never happen, but generally speaking, if someone’s supplying guns to a criminal, they’re likely going to be facing more serious charges as well. It’s simply not a charge that shows up in a lot of court cases, and there continues to be a thriving illicit market in firearms even in states with universal background check laws like Illinois.
It’s shameful that Lightfoot should lie to the citizens of Chicago about the magic benefits of a federal universal background check law, especially when she could be implementing steps right now to reduce shootings and the homicide rate in the city. Lightfoot is looking at the issue of Chicago’s violence as one to be addressed by attacking the supply of guns. In a nation with more than 400,000,000 privately owned firearms, more than 100,000,000 gun owners (and growing rapidly by the day), and a Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms, that’s a dumb strategy that amounts to trying to arrest your way out of the problem.
The answer is to attack the demand for firearms among Chicago’s most violent citizens. I’ve written before about programs like Project Exit and Project Ceasefire that target the most violent gangs and individuals in any given city with a multi-level and multi-jurisdictional response. Those individuals are told, in essence, “you are going to stop shooting. We’ll help you if you let us, but we’ll make you if you don’t.”
That promise is backed up with everything from GED and job training classes to prosecution in federal court, with no plea bargains offered, when someone decides to take a shot at someone despite being warned of the consequences. As long as the promises of both law enforcement and social services are kept, shootings and homicides typically plummet in the neighborhoods targeted by the programs.
Chicago has fitfully tried to put versions of both programs in place over the last few years, but the revolving leadership at the Chicago PD has helped to ensure that they’ve never been implemented with the kind of focus and resolve necessary to receive real results. Lightfoot could change that today with one conversation with new police chief David Brown, who was hired in April. Those programs would also allow (in fact, require) collaboration and cooperation between the various layers of law enforcement and the good people in Chicago’s bad neighborhoods. It may take some convincing to get community leaders on board, but once they are, Project Exit and Project Ceasefire could do far more to return peace to high-crime neighborhoods than the passage of any kind of universal federal background check law.