EDITORIAL: Overselling the miraculous power of a new Chicago gun law

SHARE EDITORIAL: Overselling the miraculous power of a new Chicago gun law

Sen. Kwame Raoul and Chicago police Supt. Eddie Johnson announcing legislation in 2016 to target repeat gun offenders with harsher sentences. | James Foster / Sun-Times

This whole town is so tired of goofs running around with illegal guns.

So, at the urging of City Hall, the state Legislature last year passed a law that requires judges to impose longer prison sentences on gun crime offenders. This editorial page supported the law.


But in the law’s first four months, a Sun-Times analysis has found, nobody — not a single person convicted of a gun crime — has been hit with a longer sentence under the law.

Which is not necessarily bad.

Graphic design by Ogilvy & Mather Chicago

Graphic design by Ogilvy & Mather Chicago

The new law was absurdly oversold by City Hall in the first place, with Police Supt. Eddie Johnson predicting a 50 percent drop in gun violence within a year. And to the extent that more gun offenders have not been hit with longer sentences because of safeguards in the law against prosecutorial overreach, so be it.

Time will tell, but the law still may do its intended work, which is to get the worst gun offenders off our streets much longer — but not every sad sack who stands before a judge.

When Johnson and Mayor Rahm Emanuel first pushed for longer sentences in gun cases, a concern expressed by many critics — a concern we shared — was that the proposed legislative change was overly broad and punitive, not allowing for common-sense exceptions.

Under the proposed new law, the minimum sentence for aggravated unlawful use of a weapon, which is the legal name for illegal gun possession in Illinois, would be increased to six years from three.

Judges quietly told us they had no interest in throwing the book at, say, a young man in college who had no previous violent criminal record and was carrying an illegal gun only because he was terrified to walk through his own neighborhood. They urged that the bill be tweaked to allow them more discretion in setting sentences.

The bill’s lead sponsor, Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, revised the legislation to achieve an acceptable balance. In the law as enacted, the longer sentencing requirement now applies only to offenders who have a previous gun possession or violent crime conviction. It allows judges to sentence defendants under age 21 to probation. And, most importantly, it allows judges to impose a shorter sentence for any defendant, so long as they put their reasons for doing so in writing.

As a result of the first two of those three exceptions, according to a Sun-Times report by Frank Main and Andy Grimm, none of the 39 people in Cook County who might otherwise have been hit with longer sentences during the law’s first four months were, in fact, dispatched to prison longer, if at all. Of the 14 men sent to prison, their sentences ranged from one year to three years.

Given results like that, it’s a safe bet the new law will not do what Johnson predicted it will do: create “a mental culture not to pick up a gun.” But it was always silly for the superintendent to suggest that a single new get-tough measure — longer sentences for certain gun offenders — would turn around Chicago’s problems.

A 50 percent reduction in gun violence in one year?

Johnson was talking like a politician making a sales pitch, not like the savvy cop we know he is.

The superintendent knew then, as he knows now, that the roots of gun violence in Chicago, as in every big city, are tangled and deep.

At the heart of the problem is the easy accessibility of illegal guns, to be sure. We have said as much repeatedly in the last month as part of our “31 bullets” campaign to reform state and federal gun laws.

But also at the heart of the problem are drug trafficking and unemployment, inadequate schools and dysfunctional families, material poverty and a poverty of spirit.

In the coming months, we are sure, Cook County judges will in fact impose longer sentences on some gun offenders, as required by the law. We look forward to that. Most repeat gun offenders really should go away for a long, long time.

But putting an end to gun violence will never be just a matter of cops and courts cracking down.

If only it were that simple.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.

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