Long Hot Summer: Chicago's gun economy

July 30, 2012

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James Holmes was charged with 24 counts of murder on Monday morning after allegedly killing a dozen people and wounding 58 others in a Colorado movie theater on July 20. Just days after the shooting—and in light of the tragic event—the Chicago City Council revisited the city’s controversial gun ordinance.

The controversial law recently came under fire when U.S. District Judge Samuel Der-Yeghiayan struck down the section used to deny a man a gun permit because of a prior misdemeanor conviction. The judge argued that the ordinance violated the citizen’s right to bear arms under the Second Amendment. Last week, as promised, Mayor Rahm Emanuel responded to the ruling. With City Council’s support, the mayor rewrote the ordinance to permanently bar anyone who has been convicted of a felony violent crime and impose a five-year ban on anyone convicted of a misdemeanor violent crime.

This is not the first time a tragic event sparked a call for new gun control laws. But, UCLA law professor Adam Winkler says, over the past twenty years, it’s become increasingly clear that mass shootings, no matter how tragic, don’t lead to reforms of gun laws. This is largely because gun control is a political hot button—as the National Rifle Association increases its political significance, gun control advocacy groups struggle to stay afloat. The other obstacle facing gun control, the Gun Fight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America author says, is that it’s difficult to find effective laws to prevent shootings—but that wasn’t always the case.

The National Firearms Act, the first major federal gun control law, was prompted by one of Chicago’s most famous residents: Al Capone. The blood from the St. Valentine’s Day massacre was splattered across front pages around the country in the winter of 1929. In response, President Franklin Roosevelt himself led a political movement which resulted in the passing of the NFA in 1934, thereby restricting access to machine guns and other firearms favored by gangsters.  

Yet, nearly 80 years later, Chicago remains plagued by gangsters strapped with firearms. What’s even more puzzling is that the city and the state of Illinois have some of the strictest gun laws in the nation. Illinois is the only state without a concealed carry law on the books. But Winkler says when it comes to constitutional law, it’s not good to be an outlier.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives estimates there are more than 280 million firearms in the U.S. And if the number of shootings in Chicago is any indication, a good number of those guns are in the Windy City.

To better understand the economics and legal infrastructure around guns in Chicago, Afternoon Shift spoke with Winkler, University of Chicago Crime Lab director Jens Ludwig and Special Agent Thomas Ahern. Ahern serves as the public information officer for the Chicago Field Office of the ATF.