Though it boasts some of the country’s most restrictive gun laws, the city of Chicago has long struggled with the inflow of guns from its suburbs, where buyers can purchase weapons from more loosely regulated shops located just a short drive away. Attempts to stem the tide through the courts, including a landmark 1998 lawsuit against the firearms industry, have proven futile.

Now community activists led by a South Side pastor are seeking to stop the problem by invoking a different body of law. Last week, they filed a suit that observers say is the first of its kind — one that seeks to reframe the gun debate as not merely a matter of public safety, but a civil-rights issue.

In the complaint, filed in Cook County Circuit Court, Father Michael Pfleger and the Coalition for Safe Chicago Communities allege that the methods of “licensing and regulating gun dealers” employed by the villages of Riverdale, Lyons, and Lincolnwood violate the Illinois Civil Rights Act (ICRA) because of the disparate impact of the resulting gun violence on African-Americans in Chicago.

The three municipalities named in the lawsuit correspond to three gun shops identified in a 2014 report by the Chicago Police Department and the Office of the Mayor as the sources (along with a fourth dealer in nearby Gary, Indiana) of nearly 20 percent of the guns recovered at crime scenes in Chicago between 2009 and 2013.

“I think this is an example of courageous and creative lawyering,” Locke Bowman, executive director of the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University School of Law, located on Chicago’s North Side, tells The Trace. “It’s one of these things that I haven’t seen before, but when you think about it, it makes perfect sense.”

Municipalities have been the target of firearms litigation before, but the vast majority of such lawsuits have been filed by the National Rifle Association and other gun-rights groups seeking to loosen gun laws, not tighten them.

What makes the Coalition’s case distinct from those brought by other pro-reform plaintiffs is the fact that the grounds for the suit lie not in a negligence or product liability claim but in a civil-rights complaint under Illinois’ strong anti-discrimination laws.

“There aren’t a lot of state laws like the Illinois Civil Rights Act,” Tom Geoghegan, lead attorney for the Coalition, tells The Trace. The ICRA, he said, allows plaintiffs to challenge “government policies that have the practice and effect of discriminating on the basis of race. You don’t have to show intent under this statute.”

The complaint against the suburban gun stores hinges on Section 5(a)(2) of the ICRA, which prohibits state, county, and local governments from employing “methods of administration that have the effect of subjecting individuals to discrimination.” The plaintiffs argue that because Chicago’s high rates of gun violence disproportionately affect minority communities — African-American and Hispanic victims accounted for 75 percent of gun deaths in Chicago in 2012, according to an Amnesty International report — the lack of strict gun shop regulations in the villages meets that standard.

“It’s the first time this particular kind of case has been brought under [the statute],” Geoghegan said, though he compared it to an ICRA complaint brought against Chicago that alleged racial discrimination in the city’s system of responding to 911 calls.

In that lawsuit, filed in 2011 by a neighborhood association and the American Civil Liberties Union, the plaintiffs argued that the Chicago Police Department’s pattern of deploying its officers resulted in slower response times to African-American and Hispanic areas. Though the case was initially dismissed by a Cook County judge, the Illinois Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s decision in 2013.

“Courts have the power to order appropriate relief,” ruled the Appellate Court, “for the unjustified disparate impact of a city’s administrative practices on certain racial and ethnic groups.” The case is still proceeding.

Bowman tells The Trace that the Coalition’s lawsuit is “creative, in the sense that I’m not aware of a similar case, and I think that part of its creativity lies in the fact that it appeals strongly to common sense.”

Not everyone agrees. “We at the NRA have seen a lot of strange legal theories asserted by gun control advocates over the years,” wrote the group on its website, “but [the Coalition] still managed to distinguish itself in this dubious tradition.” A press release from the Illinois State Rifle Association called the suit “a pathetic and cynical slap at the civil rights movement.” George Mocsary, a gun law expert and law professor at Southern Illinois University who disagrees with the Coalition’s interpretation of the Illinois Civil rights law, told the Chicago Tribune that he expects the case to be dismissed.

Chuck’s Gun Shop in Riverdale has been the site of protests by Pfleger and other advocates for stricter gun laws. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has singled out the shop in its efforts to address so-called “bad apple” gun dealers nationwide. A lack of oversight, Geoghegan says, allows “the flow of guns from stores in their jurisdictions into the trafficking world, where guns are sold or retransmitted to illegal users, minors, and other people who shouldn’t have them.” More than 1,500 crime guns were traced to Chuck’s between 2009 and 2013, according to the Chicago Police Department’s report.

For Midwest Guns in Lyons and Shore Galleries in Lincolnwood, those figures were 659 and 483, respectively. The average for all other Chicago-area dealers over the same period, according to the report, was three.

The Coalition’s lawsuit seeks an order requiring the three villages to implement a number of best practices recommended by the police department’s report, including mandatory employee background checks, antitheft plans subject to approval by law enforcement, regular inventory audits, and the installation of video cameras to record the point of sale.

“This has been, frankly, a long-term waking nightmare,” said Bowman. “There are hundreds and thousands of guns in places where they don’t belong, in hands where they shouldn’t be, as a result of people failing to follow the law. This litigation has the potential to be part of a solution.”

[Photo: Flickr user The Archivists @]