Friday afternoon, President Obama will speak on gun violence prevention in Chicago. Charles C.W. Cooke, writing for National Review, previews the conservative spin, arguing that because Chicago has a high murder rate and relatively strict gun laws, it “defies belief” that the President would defend gun regulations there.
But Cooke and the other conservatives who will invariably make this argument today are wrong. Chicago’s gun laws aren’t the cause of the recent uptick in violence, nor does it prove that gun regulations are ineffectual. If anything, it underscores the need for tighter federal laws.
Most significantly, it is important to understand that Chicago is not an island. Although Chicago has historically had strict gun laws, laws in the surrounding parts of Illinois were much laxer — enabling middlemen to supply the criminals in Chicago with guns they purchased elsewhere. Forty three percent of the guns seized by law enforcement in Chicago were originally purchased in other parts of Illinois. And even if the state had stricter gun laws, Illinois is not an island either. The remaining fifty seven percent of Chicago guns all came from out of state, most significantly from nearby Indiana and distant Mississippi — neither of which are known for their strict gun laws.
It’s also important to put Chicago’s very recent increase in gun violence in perspective. Data from the University of Chicago Crime Lab’s Harold Pollack shows that this uptick, while certainly worrying, isn’t anything like a return to the historic peaks during America’s crime wave. Pollack notes that “Chicago ranks 79th on Neighborhood Scout’s list of the 100 most dangerous places to live in America…the idea that Chicago faces a unique or unprecedented rise in homicides is incorrect. Our problems are all too familiar and chronic throughout much of urban America.” Chicago, following the national trend, has experienced a significant downturn in homicides in the past decade and a half:
Chicago had an outright ban on handguns from 1982 until 2010, when the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional. So there’s no reason to believe that strict regulations on gun ownership were responsible for a spike in gun homicides in 2012, two years after Chicago was forced to loosen its gun laws. Moreover, there’s simply no credible evidence that wider gun ownership or looser gun laws reduce crime.
So why did Chicago’s homicide rate increase in 2012? Pollack says “there’s no simple answer.” But he points to three factors are particularly important: escalating gang conflict as a consequence of police crackdowns and shifting gang territory, outdated law enforcement practices, and — yes — access to guns.
According to Pollack, access to guns significantly increase the risk that a conflict between two gang members escalates to homicide, as weapons designed to kill people (shockingly) make it easier to kill people. Chicago’s streets are flooded with guns: it has roughly six times as many guns as New York City per capita, despite its restrictive laws. So if gang conflict escalates, and the gangs have easy access to guns, the homicide rate should rise. This explanation fits with the fact that 87 percent of Chicago homicides in 2012 were gun-related. New York, by contrast, did not experience a surge in homicides in 2012.The guns that fueled this fire came from a small number of individuals bringing guns into the city. A study of Chicago’s gun market (which, incidentally, concluded that tight enforcement of Chicago’s gun ban and restrictions significantly disrupted illegal gun markets) found that most of guns in high-crime neighborhoods entered through a small, tight network of suppliers and middlemen: “Gun suppliers report that 60–80% of their sales are negotiated through brokers (we assume the 80% figure) and by our own estimates gun suppliers account for around half of all gun sales in the GB community.” Because most criminals weren’t comfortable going out of their neighborhoods to buy guns, and Chicago had no gun stores in the city, they relied on this network to get them guns from outside of Chicago.
As explained above, the fact that suppliers could acquire guns so easily is a byproduct of the state’s lax laws. Illinois does not license or regulate gun dealers, require gun registration, limit the number of guns that can be sold at one time, or require background checks on private sales that aren’t conducted at gun shows. Chicago law doesn’t fill in all of these gaps. As a consequence, crooked firearm retailers have very little problem distributing their guns to dealers and police have fewer tools to deal with intermediaries who sell guns privately without background checks.
This is a national problem. Illinois laws, loose as they are, are the eight-strictest in the nation. Broader data suggest that 50 percent of all crime guns come from one percent of dealers. Since illegal guns can travel across state boundaries, federal legislation targeting crooked dealers, traffickers, straw purchasers, and private sales without background checks is the best way to address gun violence in cities like Chicago. Which is exactly what the President is going to Chicago to stump for.