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Friday, April 12, 2013

Chicago’s gun laws keep getting tougher, but more people are breaking them

Posted By on 04.12.13 at 07:32 AM

These guns are among more than 1,800 illegal weapons that Chicago police have recovered since the first of the year.
  • Brian Jackson/Sun-Times Media
  • These guns are among more than 1,800 illegal weapons that Chicago police have recovered since the first of the year.
As Congress takes up some of President Obama's gun control proposals, officials in his hometown have sent a message about where they stand, responding to a wave of bloodshed by toughening already stringent local firearm laws.

Less clear is what the laws have accomplished. Thousands of gun owners in Chicago are ignoring the regulations, surrounding areas have looser regulations, and demand remains high for guns through both legal and illegal avenues.

Even supporters of the city's gun laws admit they don't address the social problems behind the shootings that continue to plague Chicago—400 so far this year. "You can try to legislate morality but it's really not something you can do," says Jason Ervin, alderman of the 28th Ward, a stretch of Chicago's west side battered by crime and disinvestment. "But I would hope people comply with the laws."

Lots of people don't.

In 2010 the City Council hastily passed a new law that allows residents to keep guns in their homes after they undergo multiple background checks, take a training class, acquire a state firearm owner's identification (FOID) card, and apply for a firearm permit with the police.

But only a small portion of gun owners have jumped through all the hoops. About a year after the new law went into effect, I reported that 3,153 people had completed the city's permitting process, a mere 3 percent of the Chicagoans who'd completed state firearm registration.

Things haven't improved much since then, according to new data from the police department. By the end of February, 7,750 people had successfully applied for city firearm permits—just 6 percent of the 130,000 Chicagoans who have FOID cards. Though not everyone with a FOID card owns a gun—and some gun owners, including police and security guards, are exempt from permits—it's evident that thousands of firearm owners still aren't adhering to the city law. (Click here to see a zip code breakdown of where Chicago permit-holders live.)

Countless others aren't following any regulations.

Tony Wade recently finished a stint in prison for unlawful use of a weapon, the most common charge for illegally carrying or using a gun. Wade, 23, a lanky former basketball player, says he wanted to protect himself when conflicts heated up in his Park Manor neighborhood. The guns were easy to come by. "You get them from friends," he says with a shrug.

Most guns recovered after crimes in Chicago were once purchased legally in the suburbs or other states, where laws are less strict. There are no meaningful federal laws addressing trafficking or straw purchases, though the Senate is poised to debate some proposals over the next couple weeks.

In February, after the slaying of Hadiya Pendleton, the Chicago City Council passed its own ordinance to discourage straw purchases and trafficking. The measure requires permitted gun owners to contact police within 48 hours of discovering their weapons lost or stolen; those who don't face six months in jail. But if most gun owners aren't registering with police in the first place, they're not going to report a missing firearm.

Another key part of the city's 2010 firearm ordinance was the creation of a gun-offender registry. The idea was that parolees would be required to register with the police department as sex offenders are. Police would then have a database to help them keep track of felons likely to be mixed up in violence.

It took more than a year for the registry to take form, and last month the council tried to breathe new life into it by expanding the number of crimes that must be registered, including gun-related robbery, carjacking, and home invasion.

But even now the registry consists of just 490 names, a fraction of the former gun offenders in the city. In 2011 alone, 1,700 people were paroled after serving time in Illinois prisons on weapons offenses, the vast majority for gun crimes in Chicago. Thousands of others were paroled for gun-related murders, burglaries, and robberies.

Meanwhile, though polls have found broad support for gun regulation, interest in firearm ownership remains high. The number of FOID card-holders in Chicago has increased 12 percent in the last year and a half. The number of statewide FOID card applications in January set a record, as did nationwide requests for federal background checks in December. At the same time, Chicago police have seized more than 1,800 illegal guns since the first of the year.

Alderman Will Burns represents the Fourth Ward, which includes both President Obama's home and the park where Hadiya Pendleton was shot. Burns says the best way to prevent urban violence is to break up concentrations of poverty and expand job opportunities.

At the same time, though, he's in favor of strict firearm laws. "I mean, I'm in no rush to take them off the books," he says. "You'd have more people with more guns."

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