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Urban Violence

The Violent History of Chicago’s Most Notorious Gun Shop

More than a decade ago, Chuck's Guns was named the nation’s No. 1 source of crime guns. Despite protests and lawsuits, it's still ringing up sales.

Three people were killed and 33 wounded by gunfire in Chicago last weekend, bringing the total number of people shot in the city so far this year to 1,187, up from 1,045 people shot in the same time period last year, according to the Chicago Tribune.

As the city deals with the rise in gun violence, one group of activists has continued to call attention to a notorious source of crime guns Chicago. When several dozen chanting, sign-waving antiviolence activists gathered outside Chuck’s Gun Shop earlier this month — the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Father Michael Pfleger among them — it wasn’t the first protest held on the doorstep of the Riverdale, Illinois, retailer.

It probably won’t be the last, either, says one of the organizer of the protests, John Gruber of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “We’ll keep doing these actions until Chuck’s adopts [better business practices],” Gruber tells The Trace. “Or until they shut their doors.”

Located on Chicago’s Southeast Side, Chuck’s has been in business for more than 30 years. But it owes its current infamy less to its wares and more to where they often end up: crime scenes. According to a 2014 University of Chicago Crime Lab analysis, over 1,500 guns that were recovered and traced to crimes in Chicago in the previous five years came from Chuck’s — far more than any other local dealer. (The store and its owner, John Riggio, declined repeated requests for comment.)

Chuck’s has never faced criminal charges, and continues to operate freely. This, despite mounting evidence that it’s become a favored supply stop for criminals in Chicago and beyond.

Aug. 15, 1998: Officer Down

While on drug-surveillance duty near Chicago’s notorious Robert Taylor Homes housing project, Officer Michael Ceriale is fatally shot with a .357-caliber Magnum revolver. Police trace the weapon back to Chuck’s Gun Shop, where a “straw buyer” (someone who illegally obtains guns on behalf of criminals) named Ezra Evans purchased it in late 1997. Authorities say the Magnum was one of nine guns that Evans acquired for James Jackson, a Gangster Disciples gang leader, who had accompanied Evans to area gun shops to pick out the weapons Evans bought. Ceriale’s father and other relatives of gun victims go on to sue a number of gun manufacturers and retailers, including Chuck’s; the suit alleges the Magnum was sold under circumstances that “should have alerted Chuck’s that this was a straw purchase made for the benefit of the Gangster Disciples street gang.” The lawsuit is later dismissed.

Nov. 12, 1998: Day in Court

Cook County and the City of Chicago file a $433 million lawsuit against more than three dozen gun manufacturers, distributors, and Chicago-area retailers, including Chuck’s. Hailed as a cornerstone of Mayor Richard Daley’s attempt to crack down on gun-related violence in the city, the lawsuit stemmed from a three-month undercover sting called Operation Gunsmoke. When the criminal indictments from Operation Gunsmoke are announced in 1999, Chuck’s is not among the five stores accused of knowingly selling weapons illegally — despite having sold seven guns to one of the accused straw buyers charged in the indictments. U.S. Attorney Scott Lassar notes that while there was not enough evidence to bring criminal charges, “we are very much aware of Chuck’s Gun Shop.” As for the lawsuit, it is ultimately dismissed by the Illinois Supreme Court in 2004.

Dec. 22, 2003: Another Cop Killed

Indiana State Trooper Scott Patrick is shot to death by 19-year-old Darryl Jeter after responding to a vehicle-in-distress call: The stolen car driven by Jeter, a felon on probation, had blown a tire and was stopped on the side of the highway. The interaction between the two men escalated to the point that Jeter pulled out a .380-caliber semiautomatic handgun and exchanged fire with Patrick, fatally shooting the trooper over the hood of his cruiser. According to a 2010 investigation by the Washington Post, the gun had come from a straw purchase at Chuck’s Gun Shop in 1997. John Clinton, a convicted felon, wanted a gun for protection but could not buy it himself, so he asked his friend Dave Johnson to come with him to Chuck’s: There, the felon chose the .380, and the friend bought it. In the following years, the gun illegally changed hands at least twice, the Post found, before winding up with Jeter.

Jan. 12, 2004: No. 1 With a Bullet

In the first-ever report to identify the nation’s high crime-gun stores, Chuck’s Gun Shop is named as the No. 1 retailer for guns used in crimes between 1996 and 2000. The advocacy group Americans for Gun Safety used ATF data to trace the origins of thousands of crime guns, and the resulting report shows that 2,370 traced back to Chuck’s. (The next-highest retailer, Don’s Guns & Galleries in Indianapolis, had 2,294 gun traces.) The report calls out Chuck’s as a top “poor-enforcement case study,” noting that “[u]ndercover detectives visited Chuck’s Guns to make undercover straw purchases 17 times — so often that they were on a first-name basis with the store clerks … [y]et the store remains open and no one from the store has served a day in prison.”

August 2012: The Gangster’s Choice

The Chicago Sun-Times publishes an investigative series on illegal gun-buying in which Chuck’s Gun Shop crops up repeatedly. In reviewing a dozen adjudicated straw-buyer cases, the paper highlights the tale of Shantella Spencer, who bought a .40-caliber handgun from Chuck’s on behalf of her husband, Omhari Sengstacke, a convicted felon. That same gun was found in Sengstacke’s BMW, along with a bulletproof vest, when police arrested Sengstacke outside Barack Obama’s Kenwood home in 2008. In a statement to police, Spencer said, “Even though I don’t like guns, I bought one for my husband. He and I went to Chuck’s to look at guns. Three days later, he gave me $1,100 to buy a gun. He waited a block away from the store so no one would see us together.”

In another article in the Sun-Times series, a picture of Chuck’s Gun Shop appears beneath the headline “Chicago gangs don’t have to go far to buy guns.” From 2008 to March 2012, the Sun-Times reports, nearly one in five traceable guns recovered in crimes in Chicago were bought at Chuck’s. The store’s owner, John Riggio, declined to speak on record for the series; the paper does report that Riggio “has never been charged with wrongdoing involving his store.”

 [Photo: Google Maps]