EDITORIAL: Getting illegal guns under our lax laws is a simple handshake deal

SHARE EDITORIAL: Getting illegal guns under our lax laws is a simple handshake deal

Montessori School of Englewood students leave notes on a tree to speak out against gun violence as part of the Schools Say Enough art installation on May 16. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

America would be a safer place if it weren’t so easy to get an illegal gun just by asking around.

A recent study of 188,338 people who had been arrested in Chicago over 7½ years found that they could easily get an illegal gun from a friend of a friend, or from someone who knew that friend of a friend. It was even easier if they were members of a gang, which reduces the distance to the closest illegal gun by about 27 percent.


To put it another way, people in the group were just “2½ handshakes” from an illegal gun and a mere 1½ handshakes away if they were in a gang, according to the study, which was published last month in the Journal of Urban Health. And getting an illegal gun might be even easier than that because the study counted only illegal guns recovered by police.

Most of the gunshot victims, as you might guess, also were from that group.

This editorial page and other advocates for more responsible gun laws have long contended that today’s laws are so weak and full of holes that criminals can get hold of illegal guns almost at will. This study, co-authored by Northwestern University sociology professor Andrew Papachristos, shows how shockingly right they are.

Back in the late 1970s, the Chicago Reporter assigned a local journalist, Richard Greenberg, to see how quickly he could buy a gun. He headed over to the Maxwell Street market, asked around, and picked up a gun within hours. Unfortunately, some four decades later, nothing seems to have changed.

The Sun-Times’ “31 bullets” campaign in conjunction with the Ogilvy & Mather communications firm has highlighted many of the gaping legal holes through which illegal guns flow. (To find out more about this campaign, including how you can help, please go to 31bullets.suntimes.com.) Among the “bullets” we have cited:

• Bullet No. 5: Universal background checks: Though more than 90 percent of the American public supports background checks for all gun sales, a loophole in federal gun laws exempts unlicensed sellers from having to perform any background check whatsoever before selling a firearm.

31 bullets is a Chicago Sun-Times campaign identifying 31 specific actions Illinoisians can take to curb gun violence locally and nationwide. | Graphic design by Ogilvy & Mather Chicago

31 bullets is a Chicago Sun-Times campaign identifying 31 specific actions Illinoisians can take to curb gun violence locally and nationwide. | Graphic design by Ogilvy & Mather Chicago

• Bullet No. 10: Bulk Gun Purchases: Laws that limit the number of guns a person can buy within a certain time frame reduce the risk of guns entering the secondary market. Monitoring bulk gun purchases is an easy way to reduce gun trafficking and violence. The Illinois Legislature has repeatedly failed to impose limits.

• Bullet No. 13: Bad Apple Gun Dealers: Ninety percent of guns used in criminal acts can be traced to just 5 percent of gun dealers. These so-called, “Bad Apple” dealers enable criminals to circumvent gun laws created to keep firearms out of dangerous hands, putting communities at risk for violence.

• Bullet No. 18: Straw purchases. When a gun buyer gets somebody else to fill out his or her paperwork, that’s called a “straw purchase.” This can put guns in the hands of people who are legally prohibited from owning them. Police say penalties for violating Illinois’ “lost and stolen” law, which helps address straw purchases, are too weak.

Last year, Chicago police took 8,952 illegal guns off the street, and this year so far the police have recovered more than 3,400 guns. We would like to believe it has made a difference. Chicago this year has suffered 52 fewer murders and 229 fewer shootings when compared to the same time last year.

But the statistics remain obviously grim. Thirty-six people were shot and seven were killed on Memorial Day weekend. On Wednesday, a music journalist was killed, and five other people were wounded in shootings. On Thursday, two people were killed and six were wounded.

A bill approved by the Legislature on Tuesday — with bipartisan support — and now headed to Gov. Bruce Rauner’s desk holds the promise of being a small but important part of the solution. The bill goes after the scourge of “bad apple” gun dealers by requiring state certification of gun shops.


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Two other bills headed to Rauner’s desk also could reduce the number of shootings, although they wouldn’t directly reduce the number of illegal guns. One would require a 72-hour waiting period for the purchase of all guns, instead of just handguns. The other would allow family members and law authorities to petition courts to remove guns from the homes of people who are a danger to themselves or others.

Rauner should sign all three bills.

People who have serious criminal records cannot legally buy guns, but we all know they do, and with ease. The Northwestern study reveals what a cinch it can be.

If we want to end the senseless daily killing, we must shut down the pipeline of illegal guns.

Send your ideas about how to curb gun violence to letters@suntimes.com.

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