The launch of a new federal effort to combat gun violence across the country brought Attorney General Merrick Garland back to his native Chicago, where he called gun violence an ongoing tragedy Thursday and said, “I feel it particularly in my hometown.”
Garland’s first official visit as attorney general to Chicago came in the wake of three mass shootings in a single day. One of them took place just down the street from St. Agatha Catholic Church, where Garland met with community members Thursday and talked briefly with reporters.
Shortly before Garland arrived at the church, a police chase erupted outside.
“Here, today, the threat of violent crime, particularly gun crime is a tragedy that is just ongoing. I feel it particularly in my hometown here,” said Garland, who was raised in north suburban Lincolnwood and graduated from Niles West High School in Skokie.
It’s the second time this month such a visit has been marred with gun violence. President Joe Biden arrived in Chicago on July 7 right after a Chicago police officer and two federal agents were shot while working undercover.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot huddled with Biden during that visit. And now, Garland has come to town to help the Justice Department launch what it’s calling a set of cross-jurisdictional “strike forces” in five key areas across the country, including Chicago.
The new program does not deploy new personnel into those areas, unlike with President Donald Trump’s “Operation Legend” in 2020. Rather, a key goal is to link law enforcement in cities like Chicago, where the violence occurs, with their counterparts in regions where guns first begin to make their way into the hands of criminals, through so-called straw purchasers.
Chicago-based U.S. Attorney John Lausch will lead the effort here, and Garland told reporters Thursday that Lausch has connected with his counterparts in potential gun source areas in downstate Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin.
“Straw purchasers and unlicensed gun sellers enable violence,” Lausch said in a statement, adding that the new program will “enhance our longstanding efforts to hold accountable individuals or groups who illegally traffic firearms into Chicago.”
After landing at Midway Airport, Garland visited the Harrison/11th District police station, at 3151 West Harrison St. on the West Side, along with Lightfoot, Lausch, Chicago Police Supt. David Brown, and Sen. Dick Durbin, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman who joined Garland on his flight to Chicago.
There they toured the Strategic Decision Support Center. Speaking to reporters after Garland left, Lightfoot sent an unflinching message warning of hefty federal prison sentences.
“If you pick up a gun, if you shoot indiscriminately into a crowd, not only are we gonna find you, we’re gonna take you to federal court and we’re gonna ship you off to South Dakota and you’re never gonna see your family again,” Lightfoot said.
Garland then moved on to St. Agatha, where he met with members of the Heartland Alliance and READI Chicago, which directly engages with people at high risk of experiencing violence.
At the start of that meeting, he acknowledged the recent nearby shooting.
“This is life,” Garland told the group. “This is not some theoretical law thing.”
Garland also attended a youth baseball game with Lausch and Durbin on Thursday in Columbus Park. On Friday, Garland will meet with local Justice Department officials in Chicago.
It all amounted to the latest federal effort to address another wave of violence in Chicago. A 15-year-old boy was killed and 28 other people were wounded here Wednesday, when the city saw three mass shootings. The first and fatal shooting took place at Douglas and Christiana — a few blocks from St. Agatha, 3147 W. Douglas Blvd.
Lightfoot called the need for federal help “a matter of incredible urgency” after she met with Biden during his visit earlier this month. But she also insisted she did not want “federal troops” who “don’t know how to do local law enforcement.”
Brown also met with Biden and Garland at the White House last week, where Brown said Garland made a “significant commitment” to help the city. Meanwhile, the superintendent is also creating a new team of about 50 officers who are also expected to target gun traffickers, separate from the federal effort.
Contributing: Lynn Sweet, Tom Schuba