News and notes on guns in America

Bullets-Per-Body Rise in Chicago as High-Capacity Handguns Gain Criminal Following

A new Chicago Sun-Times investigation into the city’s deaths by gun has a stunning statistic at its heart: not only did the city’s 2016 murder count rise to its highest level in 19 years, but fatal gunshot victims were also hit by nearly twice as many bullets as victims were during the early ’90s violent crime epidemic.

The newspaper looked at data from the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office covering two months 24 years apart. Reporter Frank Main found that the average person killed by a firearm in August 2016 was struck by 4.25 rounds, nearly double the 2.5 bullet wounds found in the average fatal gunshot victim in August 1992, at the height of the deadliest year of the past four decades.

In one August 2016 killing highlighted by the Sun-Times report, a 22-year-old man named Kendrick Thornton was shot 38 times.

One under-examined factor of what makes these individual shootings deadlier, longtime Chicago trauma surgeon John Barrett told the paper, could be the increasing ubiquity of semiautomatic pistols, which have magazines that can typically hold 10 or more rounds. The popular Glock 19 usually comes with a 15-round magazine; the iconic Smith & Wesson Model 10 revolver, by contrast, can fire just 6 times before reloading.  

Neither the Medical Examiner’s Office nor the Chicago Police Department would comment to The Trace on the role that modern semiautomatic handguns may play in driving up the number of wounds per gun death. Michael Carroll, a police spokesman, said the department does not keep track of the size of magazines in guns recovered at crime scenes.

But data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives shows that Illinois criminals increasingly favor semiautomatic pistols that accept higher-capacity magazines. Such firearms accounted for 63 percent of all guns recovered in Illinois and traced by the ATF in 2016, up from 47 percent in 2008, the earliest year for which state-level data is available.

Despite Illinois’ reputation for strict gun laws, the state does not have its own assault-weapons ban. Cook County, which includes Chicago, restricts magazine size for rifles and shotguns, but not pistols, which are far more common.

The trend toward higher-capacity handguns in the criminal market is a reflection of changes in the nation’s legal gun industry, which ultimately supplies the underground arsenal by way of straw purchases, private sales, and theft.

As I reported in December 2016, national data shows that the surge in semiautomatic pistol manufacturing that began in the mid-2000s was mirrored by a rise in recoveries of the same kinds of weapons at crime scenes. The trend began soon after the expiration of the federal assault-weapons ban, which from 1994 to 2004 prohibited the transfer of magazines or other ammunition-feeding devices capable of holding 10 or more rounds.

Once that restriction expired, semiautomatics became much more attractive to all consumers, legitimate or otherwise.