Chicago police are making thousands of arrests for illegal possession of a firearm, but as it turns out the strategy isn’t doing much at all to make the city a safer place; especially given that the vast majority of non-fatal shootings and over half of all homicides are going unsolved.
The Marshall Project has done an outstanding job of highlighting what’s actually happening in the Windy City when it comes to fighting “gun violence”; which all too often takes the form of arresting and charging individuals with felony offenses simply for possessing a gun without a valid Firearms Owner ID card or a concealed carry license. According to their report, felony arrests for gun possession have doubled over the past decade
Officials justify the focus on confiscating guns — even if they aren’t being fired at anybody — as a way of curtailing violence. Yet even as the number of possession arrests skyrocketed, the number of shootings increased, and the percentage of shootings involving victims in which someone was arrested declined.For this article, The Marshall Project read nearly 300 arrest reports to understand the tactics police use to find guns and compiled decades of police data showing a history of discriminatory gun enforcement. We conducted more than 100 interviews with people navigating gun cases, researchers, attorneys and community residents. Here is what we found:
- From 2010 to 2022, the police made more than 38,000 arrests for illegal gun possession. The number of these arrests — almost always a felony in Illinois — doubled during this time.
- Illegal possession is the most serious offense in most of the cases analyzed, the charges often bearing names that imply violence, like “unlawful use of a weapon.”
- Research by Loyola University Chicago found that most people convicted in Illinois for these charges don’t go on to commit a violent crime and that people who already committed violent crimes are more likely to do so again.
- Although Black people comprise less than a third of the city’s population, they were more than 8 in 10 of those arrested for guns in the period reviewed. The majority were men in their 20s and 30s.
- Even if not sentenced to prison, those we interviewed faced criminal records, probation, job loss, legal fees and car impoundments.
- Weapons arrests, which include illegal gun possession, are at their highest since the mid-1990s.“Guns are not assembly-line cases, and they shouldn’t be treated as such,” says Chris Hudspeth, 31, who has been incarcerated for illegal possession. “I’m scared for my life — and I gotta go to prison because I fear for my life, for my family’s safety? Because we’re not fortunate enough to live someplace else?”
While gun possession cases now make up more than 10% of all arrests in Chicago, those numbers have failed to make a dent in the city’s violent crime rate. As The Marshall Project detailed, in the year they spent reporting on this issue there were more than 3,200 people who were shot in the city, with more than 600 homicides. Chicago police, meanwhile, made an arrest in less than 20% of those cases, which is par for the course for the city. The homicide clearance rate in Chicago is less than 50%, and the clearance rate for non-fatal shootings has been closer to 5% in recent years.
In fact, The Marshall Project found that over the past three years, fully 60% of felony cases accepted by Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx have been gun possession cases, while just 4% of her caseload involved homicides.
Retired Chicago police detective Kevin Scott says solving violent crimes is harder than making weapons possession arrests because detectives have to compile several types of evidence to prove guilt.“There’s so many other hoops you have to jump through to determine if someone even committed the crime of murder versus someone [who] had a gun on them,” Scott says. “You can arrest somebody with a gun all day long.”… To see what this enforcement looks like, The Marshall Project focused on more than 225 gun arrests conducted over last year’s Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends — holidays that tend to have a heightened police presence — and found that the overwhelming majority of those arrested were Black men. Most people had no arrest warrants, nor were they on supervised release, probation or suspected of being in a gang. In most of the incidents analyzed, the police were not responding to 911 calls about a person with a gun.In arrests where possession was the most severe charge — about 140 of the cases — more than 7 in 10 began with a traffic violation. After this initial stop, police often used some other justification for a search, like the smell of marijuana.In one-third of the stops, the person arrested had a gun owner’s permit but not the license to allow carrying the loaded gun.The arrest reports show that many people were cooperative with police when they asked about guns. In some cases, they told police they had the gun for safety.“He has the firearm for protection due to him being shot and robbed in the past,” the police noted after one arrest. “Arrestee related that he was shot at two Mondays ago in an attempt[ed] carjacking where he was the victim,” another report reads.Police make a large amount of stops but find a minuscule amount of weapons. For instance, officers stopped more than 6,500 people from the Friday evening before Memorial Day through the following Monday. They confiscated about 130 guns in possession arrests.“We have an incredible problem when it comes to gun violence, but our strategy is failing, and it’s making it worse,” Cook County Public Defender Sharone Mitchell Jr. says. “Guilty or not, there’s a significant impact when it comes to really damaging, invasive police behavior.”
A big part of the problem is the prevailing attitude towards guns and gun ownership in Chicago and Springfield. A crime-fighting strategy that relies on reducing the supply of firearms in a country that protects the right to own and carry them is never going to be particularly successful because it casts a wide net over millions of peaceable gun owners in the hopes of ensnaring a relatively few number of violent offenders. A much better approach would be to reduce the demand for guns among those most likely to use them in the commission of a violent crime; starting with repeat violent offenders.
As the retired Chicago cop said, it’s not hard to find someone illegally carrying a gun in Chicago, but not everyone doing so has criminal intent. They might live in a high-crime neighborhood and simply want a firearm for personal protection, but cannot navigate the many barriers the city, county, and state has put in their way of becoming a legal gun owner. Arresting and convicting that person may help the Chicago PD and the Cook County State’s Attorney brag about getting “guns off the street”, but it won’t have an impact on violent crime.
Admittedly, it’s harder to go after the small number of prolific offenders who are driving the city’s violence. It means improving witness cooperation, and may involve spending more money on witness protection. It will take establishing trust between law enforcement and the residents of high-crime communities, which won’t happen overnight but certainly won’t happen at all if residents believe the police are more interested in padding their statistics than removing violent offenders from their neighborhoods. There needs to be serious consequences for serious crimes; something that’s not likely to happen when the vast majority of shootings don’t end in an arrest and those that do result in plea deals most of the time.
Done correctly, this approach typically results in fewer overall arrests but a marked decline in violent crime overall. Chicago’s arrest rates may have plummeted over the past decade, but the city’s violent crime rates have gotten worse because the city is focused on getting “guns” off the street instead of removing repeat, violent offenders from society. Kudos to The Marshall Project for their investigation, and for reporting on one of the consequences of “common sense” gun control.