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A young girl rides her bike by Chicago Police officers investigating a shooting in 2014. [Scott Olson/Getty]

Urban Violence

Chicago Parents Sue Governor, Arguing Inaction on Gun Violence Violates Kids’ Civil Rights

Several families are suing the state, arguing that unchecked gun violence is impairing children — and officials must do more to protect them.

Seven-year-old J.C. was at her grandmother’s store on the West Side of Chicago when police officers showed up with devastating news. It was July 2014, and J.C.’s uncle, 21-year-old Donald Ray, had been fatally shot just down the road. In the months after the shooting, J.C. was afraid to leave home, even to visit her grandmother’s store. She had such problems concentrating that her mother removed her from public school. J.C., now 11, and her mother moved out of the city entirely, to the suburb of Bellwood, hoping to escape the crack of gunfire that echoed outside their windows at night.

J.C. is still struggling to reconcile what happened to her uncle. She dreams about him at night and is easily upset. “It’s a domino effect,” J.C.’s grandmother, Tywanna Patrick, said on Wednesday. “I learned how to move forward, but children have a different way of coping.”

Patrick spoke to reporters during a news conference in downtown Chicago announcing a innovative class-action lawsuit that claims that inaction by Republican Governor Bruce Rauner’s administration to stem the flow of illegal guns into the city infringes on the civil rights of children living there, and violates the American with Disabilities Act.

“We all know that crime guns are flooding into our city and killing our children,” Tom Geoghegan, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs, told reporters. “But it’s also destroying – emotionally, psychologically, in the most profound ways – the survivors, the children who are not left dead by this epidemic of violence.”

The lawsuit, which is not seeking any monetary damages, was filed with support from the Clarence Darrow Society, a left-leaning nonprofit organization based in Chicago. Rauner’s office and the State Police did not respond to requests for comment.

The plaintiff’s arguments are rooted in a growing body of research showing that children exposed to gun violence, even indirectly, suffer symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder, including restlessness and anxiety, at levels similar to those who have fought in urban war zones.  These children are also prone to falling behind in school, performing poorly on cognitive assessments, and having greater difficulty concentrating or caring for themselves, the research shows.

The plaintiffs are wading into uncharted legal territory. They seek to prove that children exposed to violence suffer impairments so severe that the state must impose tougher rules on the businesses that supply guns.

“As far as I know, no one has ever sued the state for the health effects or mental health effects of gun violence based on a violation of the ADA,” Timothy Lytton, a professor at Georgia State University’s College of Law who has studied gun litigation. “This seems an entirely novel approach.”

The ripple effects of gun violence can be extensive. Take the story of another plaintiff in the case, M.R., whose older brother was fatally shot in the head in August 2015, when M.R. was 13 years old. After the shooting, M.R. had difficulty controlling his emotions, and within months was sent to a treatment facility, where he lived for two years, learning how to process his anger and grief. Now 16, M.R. still suffers “profound depression,” the complaint says, “and often is found laying silently on the floor of his bedroom.”

Last year, the city of Chicago released a report showing that about 40 percent of the nearly 27,000 guns seized by police between 2013 and 2016 were originally sold by gun dealers in Illinois. The remaining guns were first purchased from dealers in other states, most notably Indiana.

The lawsuit filed Wednesday says the Illinois State Police could cut down on the share of crime guns originating from inside the state by targeting dealers with tougher regulations. Those include requirements that dealers submit to state inspections, conduct background checks on all employees, adopt anti-theft measures, install systems to record all their sales on video.  The suit also seeks to make it more challenging for a gun owner whose weapon was used in a crime to purchase additional firearms unless he or she can show the other weapon was lost or stolen, or legally transferred to someone else.

The law firm representing the plaintiffs — Despres, Schwartz and Geoghegan, Ltd. — reached a settlement in a 2015 civil rights suit filed on behalf of the Coalition for Safe Chicago Communities. As part of the settlement, the village of Lyons, located just outside Chicago, passed an ordinance requiring Midwest Sporting Goods, a gun store known for selling crime guns, to keep more extensive records on sales and report suspicious activity to police. While the city said it needed more time to evaluate the ordinance, it called the early results “promising,” suggesting the number of firearms traced back to Midwest had dropped off since the law took effect.

Supporters of the lawsuit against Rauner want to see similar rules extended statewide. “There are a number of existing laws and regulations in Illinois. However, they’re disjointed, they’re not cohesive,” said Jim Yorgealitis, a former agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who was enlisted as an expert witness for the plaintiffs. “If the recommendations in the complaint are followed through on, you will see a considerable reduction in crime guns that make it into Illinois; you’ll see a considerable reduction in the resultant violence in neighborhoods that affect children and individuals in this city, and their future.”

“It’s not an unattainable goal,” he added.

Democratic state lawmakers have repeatedly attempted to pass requirements similar to those recommended in the lawsuit, but their efforts have crumbled under opposition from the National Rifle Association and other gun groups. In March, Rauner, who has been locked in a tight battle for re-election this year, vetoed a bill that would have subjected dealers to stricter state oversight, including inspections by state regulators. He argued that the bill duplicated standards already enforced by the federal government and would also levy unmanageable costs on businesses, without reducing crime. Lawmakers passed a revised version of the bill two months later, but activists who have worked on the legislation said fear of Rauner’s veto has kept lawmakers from sending it to the governor’s desk.

The ATF has the power to inspect gun dealers, but it is legally allowed to conduct only one audit on each business per year. Normally, however, the resource-starved ATF only inspects a minute fraction of them — slightly more than 7 percent in 2016. Tom Johnson, another attorney representing the plaintiffs in their lawsuit against Rauner, said that by extending inspection capabilities to the state of Illinois, the ATF would be freed up to focus on dealers in neighboring Indiana, another common source of illegal guns recovered in Chicago.

“The law already says the state police have authority to regulate gun sales. You don’t have to pass a statute, you don’t have to get a court to say you have the authority to this.” Johnson said. “They have the authority, but they never exercised that authority.”