Evolution of Chicago's handgun ban

June 27, 2011

by Robert Loerzel

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(Getty/Scott Olson)
Chicago's handgun ban history dates back to the 1960s when former Mayor Richard J. Daley thought stricter laws were needed.

Chicago’s top cop Garry McCarthy has been criticized for recent comments he made about gun control in a predominately black parish. Race relations were a factor when the City of Chicago first implemented a hand gun registry in 1968. To learn how Chicago got there, contributer Robert Loerzel explored the history, using archival recordings from the Bob Crawford Audio Archive at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

ANNOUNCER ON WFAA-TV, DALLAS: You’ll excuse me if I’m out of breath. A bulletin, this is from the United Press, from Dallas. President Kennedy and Governor John Connelly have been cut down by assassins' bullets in downtown Dallas. They were riding in an open automobile when the shots were fired. The president, his limp body carried in the arms of his wife, Jacqueline, was rushed to Parkland Hospital.

AUDIO: Taps being played at JFK's funeral.

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy shocked the nation in 1963. The years that followed were a time of civil-rights protests, police brutality, race riots and increasing urban crime. Chicago's murder rate more than doubled in the 1960s. Some people, including Mayor Richard J. Daley, said stricter gun laws were needed. Tensions flared in 1966 when Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Chicago. He spoke at Solider Field on July 10.

KING: Now is the time to get rid of the slums and the ghettos of Chicago. Now is the time to make justice a reality all over this nation. Now is the time.

King preached nonviolence, but two days after his speech, African-Americans rioted on the West Side, after police shut off the water spraying from a fire hydrant in the middle of a heat wave. Snipers fired at police from rooftops. Six officers were shot and wounded. Two black residents were killed by police gunfire.

MUSIC: Mothers of Invention, "Trouble Every Day"

President Lyndon Johnson got on the phone with Mayor Daley. The White House secretly recorded their call, as Daley made the case for gun control.

WHITE HOUSE TAPE DALEY: Something has to be done, Mr. President, about the sale of the guns.

Daley's voice can be heard faintly on the tape. Here's actor Neil Giuntoli, reading Daley's words to LBJ.

GIUNTOLI/DALEY: Outside the suburbs in the city, we have control, but what the hell, in the suburbs, there are — you go out to all around our suburbs and you've got people out there, especially the non-white, are buying guns right and left. Shotguns and rifles and pistols and everything else. There's no registration. … There's no, and you know, they've had trouble with this national gun law, but after the president's assassination, someone ought to do something.
JOHNSON: We thought so, but you can't get the Congress to vote for it, these damn conservation leagues and everybody come—
GIUNTOLI/DALEY: By God, when they see this thing that happens here, they get surprised...

MUSIC: The Montgomery Gospel Trio, the Nashville Quartet, and Guy Carawan, "We Shall Overcome."

Daley blamed outside agitators for bringing violence to Chicago, but King was pleading with Chicago's blacks to stop the violence. At the time, conservatives blamed the civil-rights movement for creating disorder. Politicians made speeches about "law and order." Some of them seemed to be using that phrase as a code for racial repression. Still, crime was increasing, and many people really were concerned about it.

MUSIC: Buffalo Springfield, "For What It's Worth."

In 1967, Daley pushed for a state law requiring the registration of all guns. His bill was defeated. The Illinois General Assembly approved a Republican compromise. It was supported by the National Rifle Association and Illinois State Rifle Association. Instead of registering every gun, the state registered gun owners. It was the Firearm Owners Identification Card.

The compromise wasn't good enough for Daley. In January 1968, the City Council ordered the registration of all firearms in Chicago. But before Daley's ordinance took effect, America was stunned by another assassination.

ROBERT F. KENNEDY: Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.

"VIOLENT TRIBUTE" TV REPORT: By 4 o'clock Friday afternoon, huge portions of the West Side ghetto were aflame.

Daley issued an executive order that temporarily banned the sale of all guns and ammo. And—as for the arsonists—he ordered police to "shoot to kill."

RICHARD J. DALEY: Men poised with Molotov cocktails, incendiaries or firebombs of any kind are the same as the assassins who pulled the triggers on the gun that killed the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and the late President John F. Kennedy. We cannot resign ourselves to the proposition that civil protest must lead to death and devastation, to the abandonment of the law that is fundamental for the preservation of the rights of all people and their freedom.

A month after the riots, Daley's new gun law took effect. Chicagoans registered 165,000 guns. And then, another assassination made news.

KENNEDY PRESS AIDE FRANK MANKIEWICZ: Senator Robert Francis Kennedy died at 1:44 a.m. today, June 6, 1968.

In August, police and demonstrators clashed at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

SCENE FROM AMERICAN REVOLUTION 2 DOCUMENTARY: Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill! Hey, kill! C'mon, kill! C'mon! C'mon, I'm over here! Shoot! Use those knives, c'mon! Shoot to kill! Kill! Shoot to kill! C'mon. Kill!

MUSIC: The MC5, "Kick Out the Jams."

Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley continued pushing for gun control. In 1972, he testified at Congress and called for a national ban on handguns. Here's some of his testimony, re-enacted by Neil Giuntoli:

DALEY/GIUNTOLI: As far as I'm concerned, the only purpose of a handgun in unauthorized hands is to kill ... The handgun makes no positive contribution to our society. It kills — whether by accident or on purpose.

When Daley died in 1976, his hopes for gun laws remained unfulfilled. Four years later, another series of violent events prompted more calls for gun control.

CHANNEL 2: Channel 2, the 10 o'clock news...

It all started on December 8, 1980.

WALTER JACOBSON: The handgun that killed John Lennon, the .38-caliber pistol, is manufactured solely for the purpose of killing people. All handguns that are manufactured in the United States are solely for the purpose of killing people. They have nothing to do with hunting, for sport or for food. They are for murdering people. Period.

MUSIC: John Lennon, "Watching the Wheels."

Over the coming weeks, gunfire claimed eleven lives at the Cabrini-Green public housing project. By now, Jane Byrne was the mayor of Chicago, and she was calling for stricter gun laws. To show solidarity with the residents, Byrne moved into Cabrini-Green on March 31, 1981. One day earlier, another shooting made national headlines.

VOICES: Mr. President Reagan! Mr. President! [shots, screaming]

And then, on May 13, yet another assassination attempt, this time in Rome.

CBS — DAN RATHER: They heard gunfire and saw the pope turn pale and collapse, bloody, into the arms of his aides. Pope John Paul II had been shot.

Amid the growing concern, the suburb of Morton Grove outlawed handguns. In early 1982, Mayor Byrne urged the Chicago City Council to prohibit all new handguns.

BYRNE: There are human beings all over this city that tonight, tonight, may innocently be shot by a criminal with a nonregistered gun, who will get away with it. And are we to sit and say, because nobody did it before, we won't do it now? The city is too important, and its people are too important.

The City Council debated the ordinance on March 19, 1982. Aldermen Richard Mell and Marian Humes spoke out against it.

HUMES: This is a con game that's being run here, that's all it is.

Aldermen Timothy Evans and Edward Burke supported the ban.

BURKE: What it does do, hopefully, is put a freeze on the number of handguns that are presently opened by people in the city of Chicago.

The City Council approved the ordinance by a vote of thirty to eleven. And what‘s been the result? NRA Lawyer Stephen Halbrook says it hasn’t had any effect on crime.

HALBROOK: I think it's made it impossible for law-abiding citizens to have handguns to protect their families in their own homes.

City of Chicago lawyer Benna Solomon disagrees. She says the law is an important tool for police to make arrests.

SOLOMON: Because we have a handgun ordinance… when a police officer is on surveillance or on patrol and sees a suspicious bulge in someone's waistband, that alone provides probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed... So it allows the police officer to intervene, right then and there.

Last year, the Chicago police seized more than 8,000 guns. Homicides decreased 10 percent in 2009, but the death toll was still staggering: 458 murders. Out of that total, 352 people were killed with handguns.

MUSIC: The Jimi Hendrix Experience, “Hey Joe.”