Chicago asks: What to do about illegal guns?

Last week the City of Chicago held a brainstorming session for possible solutions to curb the gun violence that’s plagued the city this year. The discussion was part of Chicago Ideas Week, a community think-tank project intended to develop “new and innovative” ways to tackle a number of different current social issues.  Specifically, this event aimed to uproot gun violence by answering the question, “What to do about illegal guns?”

In response, the panel offered several solutions such as implementing new policing techniques and teaching troubled youths to resolve conflicts without resorting to violence.  However, the general answer from those involved in the colloquium was preventing “legally purchased guns” from being “transferred illegally.” More specifically, the group called for a need for better record keeping of lost, stolen and privately sold firearms, which was asserted by many in attendance to be the primary method for people who cannot legally own guns, like kids and criminals, to obtain firearms.

Getting guns off the streets is not a problem for Chicago police, panelist and Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy explained.

Just seizing illegally owned guns from criminals is like “putting your mouth on a fire hose [because there are just so many of them],” he said (Chicago authorities have seized more guns this year than both the LAPD and NYPD). “We have to figure out how to prevent them from getting here in the first place.”

“In the state of Illinois … there’s no requirement to report the loss, theft or transfer of a firearm,” McCarthy said and added, “There’s absolutely no accountability as to what you do with that firearm. You give it to whoever you want, sell it to whoever you want and then two years later when we recover the gun at the scene of a murder, we go back to you and you say ‘That gun was lost two years ago. I didn’t report it lost, I didn’t report it stolen’ — because there’s absolutely no accountability.”

McCarthy said that he has no doubt that enforcing “accountability” would help limit the flow of illegal guns coming into the city.

Director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center David Hemenway, whose focus of study is injury prevention, which includes a long list of topics including firearms, spoke in support of regulation change. From a public health standpoint he said, you don’t always have to focus on the kids or criminals doing the shooting to prevent gun violence, meaning when criminals have easy access to guns, they will be more likely to use them.

To drive his point Hemenway used motor vehicles as an example saying 60 years ago people were more likely to die or be injured because of a car wreck. At that time the method to prevent collisions caused by criminal activity, like drunken driving or speeding, was education, enforcement and training, until the public health approach was utilized.

“People began asking not ‘Who caused the accident?’ but ‘What caused the injury?’ Turns out, of course, a lot of people are getting killed because the cars didn’t have air bags, they didn’t have seat belts, they didn’t have good glass in the windows, the roads weren’t being made so people could drive faster and drive safely, the emergency medical system wasn’t that good, and over the last 60 years drivers have gotten no better,” he explained. “Nobody thinks drivers are better today, but we have better cars, we have better roads, and we have a better emergency medical system. And fatalities while driving have fallen.”

On the surface, this logic follows that instead of fighting the symptoms, figure out how to cure the disease. To do that, Nina Vinik, Senior Program Officer for The Joyce Foundation‘s Gun Violence Prevention team, suggested more can be done from a public policy standpoint.

“Local regulation is possible only in a handful of states. Illinois is one of those,” she explained. “And Chicago has among the toughest gun laws in the country, but local regulation doesn’t have any impact on the flow of illegal guns from outside the city.”

Surprisingly, a large percentage of guns used in crimes in Chicago have been traced back to owners and bought from gun shops in Cook County (the county which includes the City of Chicago), McCarthy said.

Vinik suggested that the first step is regulating private sales. And by regulating she means have every gun sale include a background check. In order to do that though both parities would have to go through an FFL.

Second, approve oversight of gun dealers, meaning if a person were to open a gun store he or she would have to obtain a state-issued license similar to an “athletic trainer” or a “hair braider” in addition to their federal license allowing them to sell firearms.

Lastly, make it mandatory for gun owners to report a lost or stolen gun. “This helps law enforcement crack down on straw purchasers and helps them identify illegal guns that are coming into the city,” she said.

All of these approaches — the criminal justice, public health and public policy — are still ideas and have not been implemented, and perhaps, as the National Rifle Association, which was not present at the event, suggests, there’s a reason why.

“Laws that are crafted to regulate and track legal gun purchases punish law abiding citizens while diverting valuable law enforcement resources away from the pursuit and prosecution of the criminals,” NRA spokeswoman Jacqueline Otto said in response to the ideas proposed at the event.

She suggested, when policymakers put together plans that “the mindset needs to be that the burden of law needs to be pressing down on the criminals.”

“These proposals actually put the burden of law on law abiding citizens,” she explained. “The use of regulations or taxes often act as a barrier of entry for citizens exercising their second amendment rights.”

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