OP-ED: The Real Impact of Minor Acts of Gun Control on Chicago’s Gun Violence

The insanity of Chicago’s gun violence – 2,995 shootings in 2015, 499 of them fatal – is met with the same level of insanity around solutions no matter how retrograde or ridiculous they are. Not even decades of social science research that conclusively shows a proposed solution does not work will stand in the way of our political leaders and media from championing that solution.

For the last few years, that solution was adding a mandatory minimum sentence to anyone convicted of the unlawful use of a weapon (UUW). For those that don’t know, in its simplest form this can mean someone who simply possesses a weapon illegally.

Even as the law’s backers (Mayor Rahm Emanuel, ousted Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy and Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez) pushed this proposed state law, academics lined up to sign a statement detailing the nearly 40 years of social science research that shows mandatory minimums simply never achieve such lofty goals.

Of course, one might think that the nearly 40 years of empirical peer-reviewed research would win the day. Wrong. Consider: While the law has yet to pass in Springfield, it still has a heartbeat, while the science is dead on arrival – and completely removed from the media discourse.

The latest example of gun control measures that will basically have no impact on Chicago’s issues with violence are the steps taken Tuesday by President Barack Obama. Limited due in part to the restrictions of executive action, but highly anticipated by such groups as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, they include: More clarity on who can sell guns and the penalties for dealing outside of existing law; stricter background checks for dealers or anyone wanting to sell such a weapon – perhaps especially online dealers; more hires to conduct the bigger volume number of checks; stepped up prosecutions in domestic violence cases; and more state input to allow for greater mental health backgrounding.

Data curated by FindTheData

There might be little argument that these – at best – are very basic steps needed to be taken but Chicagoans should not hold their breath waiting for immediate impact on their communities.


It is pretty common knowledge in the justice field that most guns on Chicago’s streets are purchased legally in the suburbs of Chicago or in Indiana. The guns are then transferred to individuals who cannot legally purchase the weapons and thus make their way to Chicago’s streets. This method of turning legally purchased guns into untraceable weapons for use on the street is called straw purchasing.

This problem is not going to be resolved by increasing background checks for alternative means of purchasing a gun like gun shows or dealers who deal out of their cars. The people who purchase Chicago’s guns go through background checks and buy from brick-and-mortar stores.

The only part of Obama’s proposal that may lead to a long-term impact on gun violence in Chicago is his push to have federal-level agencies help push for the expansion in research and use of smart gun technology. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is not funded for, and therefore forbidden from, researching gun violence.)

Smart gun technology would make it impossible for a legal purchaser of a gun to turn it over to gang members in Chicago who seek to use their weapons for menacing purposes. This is because much of the smart gun technology only allows the owner through palm and fingerprint recognition to fire the weapon.

Short of having to hack the digital system for each gun, most smart guns would be worthless to gangs and drug dealers who run – and ruin – many Chicago communities.

Yes, the gun lobby and the extreme right of this country are fighting even this most basic advancement vigorously. The National Rifle Association, in particular, is a huge donor to politicians and has been blamed for past failures to toughen gun laws in this country – but so too are anti-gun groups. The NRA, as well as state organizations that abhor gun restrictions, argue that any action such as Obama’s Tuesday is an infringement on the Constitutional right to bear arms.

One example of how they fight even the simplest attempts at regulation is the battle they waged against Chicago’s gun ordinance – cited by many as rigorous since it doesn’t allow gun ownership in the city limits, nor does it permit gun dealers from operating shop in Chicago. The ordinance, worthless on its face, was rarely if ever enforced and did little to discourage illegal possession or use of guns. Yet even it is cited by gun zealots as too much.

No matter if it is Obama’s latest set of proposals or the idea of mandatory minimums for unlawful use of a weapon, our meager attempts at resolving this city’s – this nation’s – gun problems will either fail completely or not have an impact for decades to come.

Everyone involved in the gun issue in Chicago just refuses to deal with the real roots of the problem: poverty. Until we do, sadly, little to nothing will change.

Data curated by FindTheData

About Tracy Siska

Tracy Siska is Executive Director of the Chicago Justice Project, a nonprofit organization focused on justice system transparency in Chicago. He also is a visiting professor in the Department of Criminal and Social Justice at the University of St. Francis.

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