Let’s face it: Chicago has a crime problem, not a gun problem.
Prospective students are beginning to flock to the University of Chicago, and they’re coming with lots of questions. “How’s the food?” they ask. “How tough are the classes? What the heck is that giant hole next to the Reg going to be?” Many questions are innocent and expected. What really throws the tour guides for a loop—and trust me, I know, I was a tour guide back at my alma mater—is when they start asking those elephant-in-the-room questions, the ones that their parents probably wrote down for them and made them ask.
“Are you worried that Chicago’s murder rate rose by almost 15 percent last year?”
Sadly, Chicago’s struggle with crime has never been far from the headlines. There were the grisly murders of singer Jennifer Hudson’s mother, brother, and nephew on the South Side in October. On July 4, there was a fatal shooting in the Loop at Taste of Chicago. The city went on to record 62 murders in July alone. The number of American soldiers killed in Iraq during the same month? Just 13. But something else happened this summer that may represent a turning point for the city.
On June 26, 2008, the United States Supreme Court handed down the landmark Second Amendment case District of Columbia v. Heller. In January, the Federalist Society at the University of Chicago Law School hosted a talk by Alan Gura, who had successfully argued the case in favor of the plaintiff in front of the Court. At the event, Gura outlined his current project, which is to take the ruling in Heller—asserting an individual right to bear arms and striking down Washington, D.C.’s 30-year-old handgun ban—and apply it to other cities around the nation. Chicago is first on his list. Just days after the landmark case, Gura, along with local lawyer David Sigale, filed suit against the City of Chicago to overturn its handgun proscription. Given the Heller decision, it is more likely than ever before that the ban will fall.
And rightly so. Besides the fact that Chicago’s prohibition violates an individual’s right to bear arms, the law may be undermining its ability to fight crime. Despite a 26-year ban on the sale and possession of handguns, Chicago leads the nation in the number of confiscated firearms. (The average number confiscated over the last decade is 10,800 per year.) In other words, the ban has done little to prevent handguns from entering the city and being used in criminal activity. In 2007, almost 74 percent of homicides in Chicago involved a firearm. Furthermore, nearly 38 percent of homicides were gang-related. Though the Chicago Police Department has worked tirelessly (and admirably) to get guns off the street, guns simply keep making their way into the Windy City. Even if gun restrictions make guns more expensive or difficult to obtain within the city, this simply means that access to firearms is limited to the most motivated and cunning criminals. In other words, the ban most successfully prohibits handgun ownership by responsible individuals who only want a gun for their protection.
With 508 people killed in 2008 alone, Chicago needs a change in direction. Eliminating its preoccupation with handguns and refocusing its efforts on proven strategies, such as expanding neighborhood watches and putting more officers on the street, would be a great first step.
However, Chicago’s leadership refuses to see it that way. The day after the Heller decision was announced, Mayor Richard M. Daley held a press conference where he strongly denounced the ruling and excoriated individuals like Gura who wished to use the ruling as a basis to strike down the Chicago handgun ban. What he put forward was a bad-faith effort to extend the logic of the Heller decision: “Can [individuals] have one gun, 20 guns, 30 guns? Can drug dealers have guns?... Can gangbangers have guns?” Attention, Mayor Daley: The drug dealers and gangbangers already have guns, ban or no ban.
It is unfortunate that Daley doesn’t see Heller as an opportunity rather than a disaster. Heller provided him and other politicians with perfect political cover to overhaul crime prevention in Chicago—he could have done away with the ban and argued that the courts would strike it down sooner or later. But it appears that Daley wants to do it the hard way. Gura’s case in the city, dubbed McDonald v. The City of Chicago, just filed an appeal in late January. If successful, Mayor Daley may have no choice but to rethink his crime strategy.