Our Pledge To You


Silencing the Guns: How Chicago can keep guns off the streets

Chicago is awash in illegal guns. Often, they are purchased at suburban and Indiana gun stores and used in crimes within days on Chicago's streets, evidence of the problem of "straw purchases." | Sun-Times library

Editor’s note: This is the third in an occasional series of opinion essays, produced in cooperation with the University of Chicago Crime Lab, exploring solutions to the scourge of gun violence in Chicago. The Crime Lab released a report this month about the historic surge in gun violence in Chicago last year, providing insight into what happened and why. Silencing the Guns continues the conversation.

A report released last month by the University of Chicago Crime Lab offers valuable new information on Chicago’s gun violence crisis. The first step to forging solutions is to amass the data and facts to understand the nature, scope and contributing causes of the problem, and this data is critical for philanthropists, as it is for policy makers, law enforcement officials, citizens, and the media.

There is much to learn from the Crime Lab’s report. For example, many people likely do not know that almost 20 percent of Chicago’s homicide victims are children and teens; that almost half of gun violence victims are not affiliated with a gang; and just 6 percent of shootings last year resulted in arrest.


But one figure stands out: 90 percent of Chicago’s homicides in 2016 were committed with guns. This is much higher than the national average of 72 percent of homicides committed with firearms. Other gun crimes also increased in Chicago last year, much more so than non-gun crime.

Chicago is awash in guns. CPD recovered more than 8,000 guns in 2016.

Easy access to guns is a root cause of gun violence. Where there are more guns, there are more homicides, as well as suicides and accidental gun deaths. For this reason alone, in the U.S. we are 25 times more likely to be shot and killed than our peers in the developed world. The risk is not equally distributed. In cities and states with more guns, the death rate is higher. In Chicago, we are seven times more likely to be shot and killed than New York City residents, and nearly four times more likely than those living in Los Angeles.

New York and LA have stemmed the flow of illegal guns. In Chicago, we seem to have given up trying to solve this problem, and we are paying the price.

Chicago’s gun problem has multiple sources, and demands multiple solutions.  Forty percent of the crime guns recovered in Chicago were first sold by gun stores in Illinois, and many were recovered within a short time of their original purchase. That’s a strong indicator of a straw purchase or gun trafficking, when a gun is legally purchased and quickly sold on the street.  A disproportionate number of these guns are sold by three stores in suburban Cook County.

Research from Johns Hopkins University finds that Illinois could cut intrastate gun trafficking 64 percent by putting in place strong gun dealer regulations and oversight, including licensing and regular inspections. New York, California, and 23 other states and the District of Columbia regulate gun stores; in Illinois gun dealers are not subject to accountability from the state.

Traffickers who bring guns into Chicago for sale to persons who are legally prohibited from owning them must also be held to account. Sixty percent of our crime guns originate in states with weaker gun laws, especially Indiana and Wisconsin. Private gun sales at gun shows in those states are not subject to background checks, and are a ready source of crime guns. Research is clear that background check1s reduce gun deaths.

Federal prosecution of gun cases has been shown to deter gun trafficking, but few of these cases are brought. One reason is that federal laws on gun trafficking are weak. In fact, there is no federal statute that directly criminalizes gun trafficking. This forces prosecutors to look to “paperwork violations,” which are hard to prove and carry modest penalties. Even so, federal prosecutors in Chicago lag behind other large cities in prosecuting gun crimes. According to an analysis by the Sun-Times, between 2011-2016 the U.S. Attorney in Chicago brought fewer weapons cases than in Detroit, New York, Baltimore and Milwaukee.

Everyone has a role to play. Police must rebuild their relationship with the communities they serve by improving accountability and transparency, which will enable them to solve more gun crimes. Prosecutors must make gun trafficking a priority. Community members must be engaged as partners in developing solutions. Philanthropy can do its part by supporting research and evidence-based policies and programs that will empower policy makers, law enforcement and community members to stop the violence.

Ellen Alberding is president of the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation.