To many in Chicago, handgun ban is irrelevant



By Duaa Eldeib

Chicago Tribune



CHICAGO — When police caught up to a fleeing drug suspect early June 3, they had little problem arresting him. They found him in a private home he had entered, wounded in the chest by a resident with a handgun.

The shooting occurred about a week after an 80-year-old Army veteran used a handgun to shoot and kill an armed burglar who had broken into his home. In both cases, the weapons violated the city's 28-year-old handgun ban, but police so far have declined to press charges.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule this month on the constitutionality of Chicago's gun ban, and many believe the justices will strike it down. But, while those on both sides of the gun-rights debate eagerly await the verdict, the decision is essentially irrelevant for many who live in Chicago.

By one expert's estimate, there is a handgun in as many as 100,000 city households, despite the ban. And gang members or those with misdeeds in mind aren't the only ones who have them. In some neighborhoods, otherwise law-abiding citizens feel forced to violate the gun ban, they say, to protect themselves and their families.

"You've got to do what you've got to do," said a DVD salesman from Marquette Park, who has two daughters and said he bought a handgun after two thugs shot him during a recent robbery attempt. "I think people need guns to protect themselves."

Pinpointing how many handguns are in Chicago isn't easy, said Jens Ludwig, a University of Chicago professor and director of the university's Crime Lab. There's no government data tracking them, illegal guns by nature are not registered, and a random survey would be like "calling people up and asking them if they engage in any other illegal behavior, like snorting cocaine or beating their kids," he said.

But based on a study that Ludwig and other experts conducted in 2007 on Chicago's underground gun market, he roughly estimated that as many as 100,000 Chicago households could have handguns.

"Judging from the available data, there are apparently a lot of people in Chicago who feel strongly enough they need a gun for protection that they're willing to ignore the ban," Ludwig said.


The report's authors estimated about 1,400 black-market gun sales occurred each year in the Grand Boulevard-Washington Park neighborhood, "or about one sale per year for every 30 people living in this very high-crime neighborhood." In interviews with more than 100 non-gang members ages 18 to 21 who owned guns, the report found the price was $250 to $400, a serious mark-up above legal prices.

The authors characterized gun ownership across the city as comparatively low but not because of the gun ban, which they termed ineffective at reducing ownership rates though possibly more helpful in reducing violence. They cited low historic ownership rates and efforts by some gangs to control possession among their membership, and they credited "other law enforcement activities" for getting guns off the streets.

The situation is a prickly one for city officials who have promoted the gun ban for years but don't want to come off as unsympathetic to residents' safety concerns.

In contemplating what will happen if the court strikes down the ban, Mayor Richard Daley repeatedly has painted a frightening portrait of what might follow, while adding that the city has contemplated the adoption of alternative gun-control measures.

"The city is committed to upholding the handgun ban," said police spokesman Roderick Drew. "We haven't wavered in that. Every gun taken off the street is one less gun that can fall into the hands of a criminal or a child."

The city's problem is highlighted in those cases where residents use their illegal handguns apparently in self-defense. In a recent case, on June 3, a 27-year-old South Austin resident had a valid firearm owner's identification card but also a misdemeanor conviction for unlawful use of a weapon. He had pleaded guilty in 2002 to a misdemeanor weapons charge for possessing a 12-gauge shotgun.

In the other case, an 80-year-old Korean War veteran had been asleep at dawn with his 83-year-old wife and 12-year-old great-grandson when he was awakened by a burglar, who shot through the window in an effort to enter. Gun-rights advocates across the country embraced the elderly man as a hero.

"If any case dramatically illustrates the flaws in this kind of legislation, this case does," said Robert J. Cottrol, law professor at George Washington University and a gun-rights expert. "The choice the Chicago resident has is obey the law and remain defenseless or decide to defend home and family by breaking the law and getting a gun."



What's more, he said, residents fear that if they don't keep a gun, they'll wind up at the mercy of those who do.

"The police can't be everywhere," Cottrol said, "and 911 calls are responded to better in affluent, middle-class areas."

But not everyone is quick to break the ban. The cost of having a gun for most people is greater than the benefits, argued David Hemenway, a Harvard professor of health policy and the director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center and the Youth Violence Prevention Center.

"The evidence is overwhelming. Where there are more guns, there ends up being more deaths," said Hemenway, who writes about guns as a public health concern.

"It's hard. If you're living in Dodge City and everybody has a gun, you want a gun as well, but that's not good policy," he said. "In areas where there are more and more people armed, there are more guns. It's an arms race."


Every year for the last six, Chicago police have set aside a day for people to turn in guns, no questions asked. The number of weapons turned in hints at the greater total on the streets.


At one of the events last month, police collected more than 4,000 guns, other weapons and replicas in exchange for gift cards worth up to $100. Of those guns, 3,335 were handguns. Chicago police said they take in more guns through the program than New York and Los Angeles combined.

In total last year, Chicago cops recovered 8,259 firearms, up from 7,326 in 2008, police said.

In Humboldt Park, around the block from where the 80-year-old homeowner shot an intruder, there seemed to be a consensus about two things: Many people have guns, even if they won't talk about it; and many believe they need guns to safeguard their homes, families and possessions.

Although Chicago's strict ordinance has been on the books for nearly three decades, there are those who have ignored it for just as long. Others, who more recently bought handguns, said they bought them after they saw or were victims of break-ins, shootings or burglaries.

In Humboldt Park, residents say it is almost too easy to find someone who will sell a gun. Others buy across the state line or in the suburbs, if they have a FOID card.

"People protect their families," said Eric Hampton, 25, who said he doesn't have a gun but knows many who do. "If you have the money, you could get a gun within an hour."

Keia Porter, an Englewood resident visiting the neighborhood, said that with every story of a crime inching closer to home, she comes a step closer to buying a gun.

"As a single woman, I need to protect myself. It's getting too bad out there," said Porter, 24, who dismissed Daley's argument against handgun ownership in the home: "Well, then, Mayor Daley is going to have to come to my house to protect me."



(c) 2010, Chicago Tribune.

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PHOTO (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): CHICAGO-GUNS

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