You might think the Deep South is the biggest source of the firearms in the hands of Chicago’s criminals.
Maybe you heard about the less-restrictive gun laws in the South or the high-profile cases the feds have brought against gun traffickers moving weapons from Mississippi and other states to Chicago — the Dixie pipeline.
But the truth is most guns recovered in crimes here were originally bought in Illinois.
More specifically, in Cook County.
And the No. 1 supplier of those weapons is just a short drive from Chicago, Chuck’s Gun Store in south suburban Riverdale.
From 2008 to March 2012, the police successfully traced the ownership of 1,375 guns recovered in crimes in Chicago within a year of their purchase.
Of those guns, 268 were bought at Chuck’s — nearly one in five.
CHICAGO UNDER FIRE: A Sun-Times special report Part 1: Getting a gun in Chicago is quick and easy Part 2: Chicago gangs don’t have to go far to buy guns Part 3: Straw purchasers help convicts get around the law
That statistic comes from a groundbreaking study by University of Chicago Crime Lab researchers, done at the request of the Chicago Police Department, which is grappling with an extra-violent 2012 that has seen a 28 percent spike in the city’s homicide total compared to this time last year.
In their study, U. of C. researchers combed through gun-trace data to determine the weapons most likely bought by straw purchasers.
Those are people without criminal records who buy guns for felons — often at a hefty markup.
Fifty-eight percent of those recovered guns were bought in Illinois. About 19 percent were purchased in Indiana, 3 percent in Wisconsin — and less than 2 percent in Mississippi.
Cook County was the source of 45 percent of the guns over that period, according to the crime lab’s study.
Roseanna Ander, executive director of the lab, said the new findings suggest a key strategy to keeping guns off the street is for law-enforcement agencies to target the local gun stores most likely to sell firearms to straw purchasers.
But the laws on the books make it tough for prosecutions against shady gun dealers who follow the letter but not the spirit of the law.
And that’s against a backdrop of a well-funded gun lobby and an underfunded federal enforcement effort — a combination that undermines crackdowns on gun dealers.
Cases against shop owners rare
Police conducted stings on suburban gun stores in the late 1990s, but those investigations produced mixed results and they haven’t been done consistently for years.
“Firearms dealers are so well protected it makes it really hard to prosecute them. It has to be very, very egregious,” said Mark Jones, a retired supervisor for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Still, “having the dealers know people are paying attention again and are willing to act could have an impact,” Ander said.
In recent years, some people have been convicted of making straw buys at Chuck’s and other stores in the area.
But straw purchasing cases are rare compared to cases involving illegal gun possession and other types of firearm offenses.
Rarer still are convictions of the owners of gun stores.
In 2009, Ugur Yildiz, owner of Chicagoland Bells in Franklin Park, was sent to prison for more than seven years for illegally exporting arms to Canada. And in 2002, two former owners of an Elmwood Park gun shop were sentenced to probation for falsely identifying the buyer of two pistols on federal forms.
Those are the exceptions.
Most of the suburban store owners who were the subjects of stings in the late ’90s were acquitted of gun charges.
John Riggio, owner of Chuck’s, has never been charged with wrongdoing involving his store.
The shop is small-town charming, its walls adorned with Bears and Sox posters and a photo of the Lone Ranger. There’s also a sign warning customers it’s illegal to buy guns and ammo for someone else.
Riggio declined to talk on the record, but privately he’s happy to chat about the steps he takes to ensure he and his customers are following the law.
As he talked one recent day, a Dolton police officer walked into the store to say hello and helped a customer with questions about how he could legally transport his newly purchased gun in his car.
Riggio and his store don’t project the image of an arms dealer indifferent to whether guns wind up in the hands of criminals or honest citizens.
Still, he’s been blasted over the years, accused of being an irresponsible gun dealer. The criticism began after a study showed Chuck’s sold more guns between 1996 and 2000 that ended up in the hands of criminals than any store in the country.
The store is periodically targeted for protests by gun-control activists such as the Rev. Michael Pfleger and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. In one rally outside the store in 2007, Jackson yelled to hundreds of protesters: “Futures not funerals! Sons not guns!”
Often stolen from legitimate buyers
Larry Pelcher, owner of Pelcher’s Gun Shop and Shooters Supply Inc. in south suburban Lansing, didn’t want to speak for Chuck’s, but said he doubts any local gun stores are breaking the law.
And he doesn’t think straw purchasers are the key reason guns are getting into criminals’ hands in Chicago.
Store owners “go out of our way to ensure the person buying the firearm is legitimate and is not a straw buyer,” Pelcher said.
The guns traced back to suburban Cook County stores have often been stolen from legitimate buyers who got them for protection, he said.
Police acknowledge stolen guns form part of the supply line to crooks.
In an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, a South Side gang member admitted he and his crew almost exclusively arm themselves with stolen guns because they can’t afford to buy new ones. Some of those guns, he said, are stolen from freight trains sitting in South Side rail yards. Others are swiped from gun stores.
To better track stolen weapons, Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy is pushing for a law requiring gun owners to file a police report when their firearms are stolen, lost or transferred to another owner.
But stolen guns are only part of the supply.
The gang member interviewed by the Sun-Times also said weapons from straw purchasers are common, too. It’s just another way to make money on the street.
Wealthy drug dealers in his South Side neighborhood buy those weapons from straw purchasers — usually for $100 or more above the retail price.
The stream of guns from straw purchases continues because some gun dealers are engaged in a “charade” with crooked buyers, according to the former ATF agent, Jones, who worked for the bureau in Chicago and whose last assignment was as regional firearms adviser for Central America.
Most federally licensed gun dealers are smart enough to follow the letter of the law that bars them from selling to straw buyers.
So they check whether a customer has a valid Illinois firearm owner’s identification card needed to buy a gun.
They conduct a background check to make sure the buyer isn’t a crook.
But when they suspect a customer is a straw purchaser, some gun dealers don’t follow the spirit of the law, Jones said.
They sell the gun anyway.
A shady deal might play out like this, Jones said:
Two men walk into a store. One has an Illinois FOID card needed to buy a gun. The other has only a driver’s license.
The dealer tells the FOID cardholder: “I can’t sell you a firearm unless you come in alone.”
So a week later, the suspected straw purchaser returns, alone, and buys the gun his buddy wanted — but couldn’t buy legally.
“It’s a charade,” Jones said. “It’s very hard to prove a dealer ‘knowingly and willfully’ sold a gun to a straw purchaser.”
But Pelcher, the gun store owner, said he and other store owners police themselves. He said they regularly circulate faxes among each other about suspicious shoppers they turn away.
On July 30, for instance, he got a fax that two men — one with an Illinois FOID card and one with a driver’s license — walked into another store to look at guns. The storeowner told the men to leave. The fax included photos of the rejected buyers and warned: “These men attempted a straw purchase. They may try again elsewhere.”
Pelcher insists he doesn’t just follow the letter of the law. He goes beyond what the law requires, he says.
For instance, Pelcher says he tries to makes sure customers comply with Chicago’s new gun registration requirements.
In 2010, the City Council passed a gun registration law after the U.S. Supreme Court declared the city’s handgun ban unconstitutional. The city now requires gun owners to obtain a permit through the Chicago Police Department and register their guns with the city.
Pelcher said he checks potential customers’ IDs to see whether they have a Chicago address. If they do, but they haven’t received a Chicago gun permit, he’ll ask where they plan to keep the gun.
Gun dealers are not required by law to bar people with Chicago addresses from buying firearms.
“If they present a valid FOID card but say they want one for protection in Chicago, I won’t sell it to them, unless they’re willing to have me hold the pistol until they get a Chicago permit,” Pelcher said.
“We have been here long enough to know who they are when they walk into the store,” he said. “When you have a woman walk into the store with a firearms card and you ask her a simple question about a gun and she doesn’t know the answer, you know it’s not for her. We’ll turn her away.”
But Jones said nailing such people for trafficking guns isn’t easy.
He explained that store owners are required to report multiple handgun purchases by an individual. ATF officials can examine those records to flag potential straw purchasers, he said.
Yet, ATF is too short-staffed to do a proper job inspecting the records of the gun dealers, which the agency calls FFLs or federal firearms licensees, Jones said. He estimated that the average gun dealer is inspected every few years.
ATF also has an “investigative history of being extremely careful about how FFLs are handled,” Jones said.
The National Rifle Association and its allies in Congress have intensified pressure on the ATF, Jones said, to avoid conducting criminal investigations of gun dealers since the controversial “Fast and Furious” investigation, in which the agency failed to track straw-purchased weapons that wound up in Mexican drug cartel members’ hands and were used to kill a U.S. Border Patrol agent.
Asked for statistics on how many gun cases ATF has submitted to prosecutors in recent years, a local spokesman for the agency referred the Sun-Times to a Syracuse University system that tracks federal prosecutions.
It showed the ATF office for the Northern District of Illinois had a decline in weapons prosecutions from fiscal year 2010 to 2011, and the trend was expected to continue the following year.
Nationally, there’s been “a shifting emphasis toward drug-related investigations,” according to the analysis.
Over the past five years, meanwhile, prosecutors have shifted their strategy involving gun cases, according to records and interviews.
The U.S. attorney’s office is no longer prosecuting most locally based gun cases involving straw purchasing. Instead, federal prosecutors have been focusing on interstate gun-trafficking rings and on felons who have guns illegally.
In recent years, federal and Cook County prosecutors have been meeting regularly to decide who will handle what gun cases in an effort to maximize potential sentences.
They realize straw buyers typically receive probation in the federal system because the defendants don’t have criminal records.
So those cases are going to Cook County prosecutors who can seek stiffer sentences.
Federal prosecutors have won long prison terms for people convicted of illegal gun possession and out-of-state gun trafficking, according to a sampling of dozens of recent sentences.
On average, those defendants were being sent to federal prison for 10-year terms with only one sentence of probation.
A small sampling of straw purchasing cases prosecuted in Cook County also showed defendants’ hefty sentences: four years on average.
But if you look at all gun-related Cook County sentences, the numbers tell a different story.
A Sun-Times study of gun-related sentences in the Cook County Criminal Courts showed judges favoring probation over prison sentences in most of the cases.
Most involved charges of unlawful use of a weapon — someone having a gun when they shouldn’t — and not straw purchasing.
Based on thousands of criminal records obtained through a Freedom of Information request, the newspaper looked at gun cases that didn’t involve other crimes.
Of more than 8,000 people sentenced between 2005 and March 2012, about 54 percent received probation and the others received prison or jail terms, the Sun-Times found.
“There is no certainty of consequences in Cook County for getting caught with a gun,” said Nicholas Roti, chief of the Chicago Police Department’s Bureau of Organized Crime.
To make sure gang-bangers get locked up, prosecutors have been using a new law enforcement weapon — the Valadez Law, named for slain Chicago Police Officer Alejandro Valadez. One of the three men charged in Valadez’s June 2009 murder was on probation for aggravated unlawful use of a weapon, a gun possession charge.
The 2010 Valadez Law requires prison time for street gang members convicted of possessing a loaded gun in a public area.
New ballistics lab
To improve their ability to make gun cases, the Chicago Police are building a new ballistics laboratory because they say the State Police crime lab was taking too long to test recovered guns for evidence.
Authorities also are considering a new Cook County gun court dedicated to handling only firearms cases.
As for straw purchasers, some experts have called for legislators to require gun stores to install security cameras and allow authorities to review videotapes of those purchases. They also have suggested a ban on cellphones in gun stores to stymie straw buyers from taking orders from their customers.
Ander, the head of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, said undercover stings on gun stores also seem to have reduced the flow of crime guns from those locations — at least temporarily.
She pointed to a 2006 study by Johns Hopkins professor Daniel W. Webster that found stings were associated with an abrupt, year-long decline in the flow of new guns to criminals in Chicago.
“The scrutiny seemed to change their behavior,” Ander said of the suburban gun stores after the stings of the late ‘90s.
“Given the magnitude of gun violence in Chicago, we should be employing all the tools in the toolbox that can make a dent in this problem.”
Contributing: Art Golab