Every year, Chicago police officers arrest hundreds of people for violating the city’s gun-offender registration ordinance, a law that requires anyone convicted of gun-related violence or illegal gun possession to go to police headquarters yearly and register their home addresses.
But it’s rare that anyone is punished for failing to comply with the law, modeled on similar measures that were credited with helping reduce crime elsewhere.
That’s according to a Chicago Sun-Times analysis that found most of those cases get dismissed in court — and that’s typically done at the request of lawyers representing City Hall.
Take Devaughn Levi. He was arrested three times in early 2020 for failing to register as a gun offender. But each of those misdemeanor cases was dropped at city lawyers’ request, court records show. Levi is now in jail, charged with felony gun-possession.
To get an idea of how the law is enforced, the Sun-Times examined 33 gun-offender registry arrests that were made in January 2020. In one of those cases, a man got fined $500 — violations carry a possible penalty of a $300-to-$500 fine and six months in jail. All of the other cases were dropped at the request of attorneys for the city.
“The gun-offender registry is BS. What a colossal waste of resources,” says Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th), whose Southwest Side ward is the home of many Chicago police officers. “Who are we kidding? Gun offenders at every level aren’t getting prosecuted. In my opinion, it’s a waste of time. It creates a lot of useless paperwork.”
The gun-offender registry was established under then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2013. The aim was to alert the police to use extra caution when approaching any suspect the police department’s arrest database shows is in the registry.
Because it’s established by city ordinance, violations are prosecuted by city attorneys, not Cook County prosecutors.
It was modeled on similar programs in Baltimore and New York. Baltimore officials had been quoted in a Washington Post story the previous year saying their gun-offender registry helped reduce crime, with fewer than 5% of the 1,600 people on the list ending up being arrested on new gun charges.
Officials say they don’t know whether Chicago’s registry has played any role in reducing crime.
Asked why lawyers for the city nearly always asked judges to dismiss charges in cases involving gun-registry violations, a spokesman for Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s law department, responding by email, said, “In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the law department has temporarily halted the prosecution of gun-registry offenses.”
Spokesman Isaac Reichman said that’s how gun-offender registry arrests have been handled since April 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic forced the courts to curtail most activities.
“The city of Chicago’s gun-offender registry is a valuable public safety tool which the law department is committed to enforcing, and the city will resume the prosecution of gun registration offenses once the notice is lifted,” Reichman wrote, blaming the pandemic.
He didn’t address the lack of enforcement before then, although five of the 33 people in the January 2020 sampling also had been arrested the prior year for a gun-offender registration violation, and those cases were dismissed, too.
The number of names on the registry has grown from 1,400 in 2017 to about 4,500 this year. That happened after Chicago aldermen questioned why, amid heightened concern over shootings, so few people were on it.
The number of killings in Chicago rose to 769 last year, making 2020 one of the city’s deadliest years in decades, with the vast majority of those deaths from shootings.
Though another aim of the registry is to reduce crime, it doesn’t look like people who are on it are staying away from crime, the Sun-Times analysis found. Of the 33 gun-offender registry cases the Sun-Times examined from January 2020, 16 of those defendants have subsequently been arrested on new charges, in some cases for multiple new offenses. Among them:
- Ten have been arrested at least once more for violating the gun-offender registration ordinance.
- Five have been charged with illegal gun possession.
- One was charged with burglary.
- Two were charged with violence against police officers. One of those was Levi, 37, who was charged with hitting a cop with a car as he tried to flee.
Having had the city’s lawyers get each of the three gun-registry charges he faced in early 2020 dismissed in court, Levi was arrested again in October. This time, he was charged with striking and injuring a Chicago police officer with a Buick Rendezvous while trying to flee from a traffic stop, court records show. Levi is awaiting trial.
He had pleaded guilty in 2017 to the illegal possession of two handguns while riding in a car that was pulled over by the police.
In another case, a man named Robert Coleman, 28, was arrested twice last year for violating the gun-offender registration ordinance. One charge stemmed from a traffic stop in January 2020 and the other from a stop on a sidewalk the following month. Both cases were dismissed at the city’s request.
Then, in September, Coleman was charged with illegal gun possession after officers investigating a report of shots fired on the South Side said they saw a pistol grip sticking out of Coleman’s waistband as he stood in the street and found he was carrying a .45-caliber Glock handgun. Coleman pleaded guilty to the gun charge and is awaiting sentencing, records show.
Lightfoot’s administration isn’t alone in not prosecuting gun-registry violations. The city’s lawyers weren’t prosecuting these case under her predecessor, either, court records show. A sampling of gun-registry arrests in January 2018, during Emanuel’s last year as mayor, shows those cases also were dismissed at the request of the city’s attorneys.
Even though the city rarely prosecutes gun-offender registry violations, the Chicago Police Department says it remains committed to enforcing the ordinance. A team of 18 officers is responsible for maintaining the gun-offender registry and a separate sex-offender registry.
“The Chicago Police Department’s gun-offender registry continues to be a valuable resource for the safety of our officers and the community,” says Margaret Huynh, a spokeswoman for the department.
She declined to comment on whether police officials are frustrated with the city’s lack of prosecutions for gun-offender registry violations.
Court records show police officers typically arrest people for gun-offender registry violations when they come in contact with them for other offenses, mostly for minor things like traffic infractions.
The number of misdemeanor arrests for violations of the gun-offender registration ordinance has risen steadily — from 290 in 2017 to 315 in 2018 and 495 in 2019. But last year, during the pandemic, the number of arrests for those violations fell to 225.