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Urban Violence

Chicago Police Have Been Seizing an Illegal Gun Every 75 Minutes This Year

Targeting big offenders is helping, but not enough to stem the tide of guns from states with looser laws.

In preparation for this year’s Fourth of July weekend, the Chicago Police Department increased its presence on city streets by nearly a third, with officers working 12-hour shifts. The deployments may have helped slightly reduce the number of people killed by gunfire compared to the same period last year — the city had nine firearms fatalities over the holiday versus 16 in 2014. But one thing that can be measured more precisely is the bounty of illegal guns they confiscated. According to Superintendent Garry McCarthy, officers seized illegal firearms at a rate of about one an hour over the course of three days.

It is a remarkable statistic. But for the city’s police department, the rate isn’t unusual. In the first six months of this year, officers recovered 3,470 illegal guns — or one gun every hour and 15 minutes. That’s an increase of 6 percent over the same period last year.

At a press conference Sunday, McCarthy said that the massive number of seized firearms is a clear indication that the city needs to crack down harder on those who break the city’s gun laws. “We’re getting more guns,” he said, but “it’s not stopping the violence. And it’s not going to stop the violence until criminals are held accountable.”

McCarthy has repeatedly criticized the state’s lenient sentences for gun violations, saying that they keep dangerous criminals on the street and undermine aggressive law enforcement. In Illinois, illegal gun possession carries a sentence of one to three years, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. A sampling of cases studied by the newspaper showed that more than half of those found guilty of gun violations serve the minimum sentence of one year. In New York, by comparison, illegal gun possession has a mandatory-minimum sentence of 3.5 years.

For McCarthy, the low bail set for firearms violations is likewise a source of frustration. On Sunday, he linked the killing of 7-year-old Amari Brown over the weekend with the release on bond of his father, Antonio Brown. Police believe the shooter who killed Amari was aiming for his father, an alleged gang member with a lengthy rap sheet. In April, Antonio Brown was arrested on felony gun possession charges — his 45th arrest. He posted $5,000 and was released the next day, according to the Sun-Times. “If Mr. Brown is in custody, his son is alive,” McCarthy told reporters.

McCarthy has likened efforts to take illegal guns off the streets to “running on a hamster wheel.” The city’s police department uses sophisticated data analysis and intelligence efforts to identify a small number of people they believe are driving gun violence. Targeted operations against these high-impact players often yield gun seizures, as do many other arrests in violence-riddled neighborhoods.

But the flow of guns into the city continues. Officers in Chicago seize more guns than their counterparts in New York and Los Angeles — two cities with larger populations — combined. In 2012, Los Angeles police seized 122 illegal guns for every 100,000 residents, while New York cops confiscated 39. In Chicago, the rate was 277.

“There’s a much larger supply [than in other cities],” Anthony Guglielmi, a spokesman for the Chicago Police Department, tells The Trace. “We can take off 10,000 guns a year. These guns just seem to come back.”

A study released last year by the city found that almost 60 percent of guns recovered at Chicago crime scenes were first bought in states — like neighboring Indiana and Wisconsin — that do not require background checks for Internet or gun show sales. Of the remaining crime guns, nearly half were purchased at just three Chicago-area gun shops: Chuck’s in Riverdale, Midwest Sporting Goods in Lyons, and Shore Galleries in Lincolnwood. More than 3,000 crime guns were traced to the three stores alone.

Dr. Harold Pollack, the codirector of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, tells The Trace that efforts to find and shut down supply chains to city gangs have made it harder to get a gun through the black market. Still, he says, in a city where nine gunshot deaths over the Fourth of July weekend is seen as an improvement, acquiring a gun remains far too easy.

“Progress is happening,” he says, “but it’s happening too slowly for what we need in many of these neighborhoods.”

[Photo: Flickr user Kate Gardiner]