How To Fix The Crime Problem In Chicago

posted on April 28, 2016

This feature appears in the May ’16 issue of NRA America’s 1st Freedom, one of the official journals of the National Rifle Association. 

Let’s say you run Chicago. And let’s say the social scientists, criminologists and community activists come to you and say gang violence is going crazy—crazy enough in some neighborhoods to make Chicago the per-capita murder capital of the United States.

Do you face reality and try to solve the problem by, you know, going after the people committing murder and by getting government restrictions out of the way so good people can protect themselves? Or do you use your position to blame the freedom enjoyed by people outside of Chicago for your city’s out-of-control murder rate?

If you chose the first method, then your name isn’t Rahm Emanuel—or, for that matter, Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. 

Chicago’s Mayor Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, has said, “Chicago’s violence problem is largely a gun problem,” as if guns, all by themselves, have decided they don’t much like the residents of some Chicago neighborhoods. 

You likely know all of that already. But it’s what isn’t being reported that is allowing this problem to grow—and perhaps even be exported to wherever you live. This is why, to fix Chicago, we need to shine the light of reason on what is occurring there. 

Start By Putting The Blame Where It Belongs

So OK, Emanuel blames freedom. He has said, “There are way too many guns from shops in Cook County and from neighboring states that come into the city of Chicago. On any given weekend, our police officers take more guns off the streets than either New York or [Los Angeles].”

Emanuel and President Obama think if they could only severely restrict—even ban—guns across the country, then Chicago gangs would stop killing each other. 

To see if gun stores are selling guns to Chicago’s gangs, I asked Thomas Ahern, public information officer for the Chicago Field Division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). The ATF’s agents are the ones responsible for licensing, auditing and, if necessary, investigating those who have federal firearms licenses (FFLs), which basically means stores that sell firearms. 

When asked if the ATF has evidence that shows whether gun stores around Chicago are supplying gangs with guns, Ahern replied, “Licensed gun dealers are not the problem in our experience.” 

Ahern noted that if guns found at crime scenes—he says law enforcement is recovering about 45 guns per day in Illinois—are found to come from a particular store, they’ll investigate and potentially arrest the gun dealer responsible, but again that hasn’t been occurring. 

In truth, most guns recovered at crime scenes were not recently on the shelves of any gun dealers. When I asked Ahern what the “time-to-crime” average is in Illinois (“time-to-crime” is an ATF statistic that measures the amount of time from when a gun is sold by a dealer to when it is found at a crime scene), he said he didn’t know. Since this is a statistic ATF publishes, I looked it up. The national average is 10.88 years, and for Illinois it’s 13 years. 

Obviously, gun dealers are not the problem. So where are the guns coming from? Licensed gun dealers are not the problem in our experience.

According to ATF statistics, the majority of the guns either seized, found at crime scenes or otherwise taken by the police in Illinois in 2014 came from within the state. In some cases, criminals are stealing guns for Chicago gangs. Last November, for example, a 36-year-old man named Walter Freeman was sentenced to 16 years in federal prison for selling at least 80 guns to gang members in Chicago. Freeman had stolen the guns from a gun collector in Illinois. 

In short, gangs are getting guns as all criminals do, by breaking state and federal laws to steal them, tapping into a black market or getting someone to break the law for them. 

Given this fact, could it be that less emphasis needs to be placed on inanimate metal objects that could be used for good or ill, and more needs to be placed on locking up bad guys? 

Round Up The Usual Suspects

After years of stories about gang-related shootings in Chicago, it’s easy to get numb and forget that people—actual people—are being shot. Also, it is hard to even hold on to the irrational notion that the culture of violence perpetuated by Chicago’s 150,000 gang members can somehow be used as a rationale to take away your rights: After all, how can our bloodiest example of failed gun control policies be a justification for spreading those same policies to places that are safe? 

Welcome to Chicagoland, home of contradictions and misplaced blame. This is a place where a 9-year-old boy was executed by a gang member last fall because the boy’s father is in a rival gang that had allegedly killed one of its members. As it turns out, (surprise, surprise) the executioner, who has since been charged with the boy’s murder, had been let out of jail early. 

In March, Chicago police charged Dwight Boone-Doty, a 22-year-old man, with first-degree murder in the death of 9-year-old Tyshawn Lee. Tyshawn had been playing basketball in a park on Nov. 2. He was lured into an alley and executed. Boone-Doty was being held on unrelated gun charges in another case when investigators connected him to the murder. The Chicago Sun-Times reported that Boone-Doty had been sentenced to five years in prison in July 2013 for gun and drug charges, but was paroled in August 2015, three months before he allegedly shot Tyshawn. 

If that all sounds horrific, and you are wondering what is going on with the local criminal justice system, again, welcome to Chicagoland. 

To see the complete picture, let’s step out of the blood and into the statistics. According to figures crunched by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a data-gathering and distribution organization at Syracuse University, in 2012 Chicago ranked dead last in federal enforcement of gun laws per capita. And that wasn’t an anomaly. In recent years Chicago has remained at or near the bottom of the list for prosecutions of gun crimes at the federal level. In 2014, Chicago ranked 82nd out of 90 federal districts.

In fact, though Obama has often talked about gun violence—usually as a justification for more restrictions on freedom—his Department of Justice (DOJ) has been pursuing fewer “gun violence” cases. The number of gun-related prosecutions has declined almost every year since Obama was sworn into office in 2008. 

The DOJ reported it had 6,002 new weapons-related convictions in 2015. According to case-by-case information analyzed by TRAC, this number is down 5.8 percent from 2014. Compared to five years ago, the number of convictions is down 15.5 percent. Gun-related convictions are down 34.8 percent from 2005, during the George W. Bush administration. 

This is why NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre has challenged Obama to enforce the law to solve Chicago’s woes. 

Last January, after Obama used Chicago as an example of gun violence in his argument that America needs more gun restrictions, LaPierre said, “Through a deliberate lack of prosecution, Obama has made America a sanctuary nation for felons, criminal gangbangers, drug dealers, repeat offenders and illegal aliens. Under the existing federal gun laws, he could take every felon with a gun, drug dealer with a gun, and criminal gangbanger with a gun off the streets tomorrow and lock them up for five years or more. But under his direction, federal gun prosecutions have dropped dramatically. 

“And nowhere have criminals fared better than his hometown of Chicago. Criminals like Tyrese Bell, who—despite being convicted five times in six years, including on a gun charge—was let out on probation, hopped into a taxi and murdered the driver.” 

LaPierre said the president already has the power to stop the carnage, he just won’t do it for whatever reason. 

“If the president really wanted to make Americans safer, he’d pick up the phone and tell his Justice Department to flip Chicago upside down until every criminal with a gun, criminal gangbanger with a gun and drug dealer with a gun is arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned to the fullest extent of the law,” LaPierre said. Through a deliberate lack of prosecution, President Obama has made America a sanctuary nation for felons, criminal gangbangers, drug dealers, repeat offenders and illegal aliens.

When asked why the prosecution rate for gun crimes in Chicago is so low, Joseph D. Fitzpatrick, an assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago, said TRAC’s research “isn’t conclusive.” He said that in 2014, Chicago’s DOJ office started a Violent Crimes Section as part of a restructuring of its Criminal Division. “The Violent Crimes Section has one mission—to help the city and our district tamp down on violent crime. We have 15 attorneys in this section dedicated full time to prosecuting violent crimes,” he said.  

Fitzpatrick, however, said he couldn’t provide any data showing how many cases the Violent Crimes Section has taken up since it was formed. 

I pointed out that having 15 attorneys means they have one attorney for every 10,000 gang members (Ahern said there are 150,000 gang members in Chicago), and I asked if they were understaffed. Fitzpatrick said, “I’ll decline to comment on the resources that are afforded to the office. I will say, however, that we are excited to have hired several assistant U.S. attorneys within the past year. As you probably recall, there had previously been a sequestration in federal hiring, so it’s important that we now have 158 assistant U.S. attorneys in our district.” 

Fitzpatrick also said that gun-related cases are often adjudicated at the local level. He said they have monthly meetings with city, state and other officials where they discuss particular cases as they decide which has a better chance for a stiffer sentence, state or federal court. 

There are numerous overlaps where gun crimes can be prosecuted by either the local criminal justice system or the federal government. According to TRAC, “Justice Department records show that at least one in 10 federal weapon prosecutions last year were referred by joint federal, state, and local task forces or by state and local authorities.” 

The Chicago Sun-Times looked into this and reported that Chicago’s “Cook County judges aren’t throwing the book at people convicted of gun crimes.” In Illinois, the minimum sentence for illegal possession of a gun is one year. The maximum is three. The Sun-Times found that most people get the minimum, and many get out early for good behavior.

Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez was asked about this problem and said simply, “I don’t think that anybody should be able to own guns.”

This anti-gun viewpoint is also held by the DOJ’s lead attorney in Chicago. U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon said in 2013, “We are not going to arrest our way out of the gang problem in Chicago.”

Allow Justice To Be Blind

Even as they point fingers at each other, Obama’s DOJ and Chicago officials have decided the key to solving inner-city gang violence is controlling gun ownership, not locking up criminals. There are many political reasons for this.

From Emanuel’s point of view, if the federal government will prosecute and jail the bad guys with guns, then he can tell his constituents—who might not be happy about increased arrests and long jail sentences—that it is out of his hands. Also, when people are tried in federal courts and jailed in federal penitentiaries, American taxpayers foot the bills, not the city of Chicago.

Still, from the anti-freedom left’s point of view, there is a more pervasive political problem with getting tougher on crime. They simply don’t believe violent crime is the criminals’ fault; rather they think that bad apples are only victims of circumstance. 

Many on the left feel that higher prosecution rates for certain minorities constitutes proof of racism. 

Obama has echoed this belief. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama said that blacks and whites “are arrested at very different rates, are convicted at very different rates [and] receive very different sentences ... for the same crime.” 

It is therefore likely that Chicago is suffering from what has been called the “Ferguson Effect,” where a political reaction might result from more arrests and aggressive policing as cops take down armed gang members. After a recent shooting by police, Obama’s DOJ opened an investigation into the Chicago Police Department (CPD). Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said in a press release that the “investigation will focus on CPD’s use of force, including racial, ethnic and other disparities in use of force, and its systems of accountability.” 

With this racial tension in the air, it is doubly difficult for those on the left side of politics to deal with Chicago’s gang warfare aggressively. 

So even though, with 95 homicides as of Feb. 22, Chicago’s murder rate was double what it was on the same day last year—and by March 10 the body count had reached 115—Emanuel and Obama haven’t shown any sign of dropping the politics to do the right thing: forcefully arresting and prosecuting bad guys to make the streets safer for the many good residents of Chicago.


Deputy Tyler Thoman
Deputy Tyler Thoman

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