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Rifles and handguns recovered by the Chicago Police Department.

Rifles and handguns recovered by the Chicago Police Department.

M. Spencer Green

Gun cases in Chicago turned down by feds at higher rate than in most cities

Chicago is flooded with firearms, more than almost anywhere in the country, but federal prosecutors in the city are less likely to approve gun charges than their counterparts in most other cities.

A massive new data release by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives shows that more ownership traces of “crime guns” recovered by law enforcement agencies were done in Chicago than anywhere except Houston from 2017 through 2021.

Yet federal prosecutors in Chicago were ranked in the bottom eight of the country’s 94 federal court districts in the percentage of gun cases they approve, according to the report ordered by U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, who was in Chicago on Wednesday to announce $78 million in anti-violence grants.

Garland said the third volume of the ATF’s National Firearms Commerce and Trafficking Assessment, which was released Thursday, is “the most comprehensive look at America’s crime gun data in over two decades.”

Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks Wednesday during the Office of Justice Programs’ second annual Community Violence Intervention and Prevention Grantee Conference at the Hyatt Regency Chicago.

Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks Wednesday during the Office of Justice Programs’ second annual Community Violence Intervention and Prevention Grantee Conference at the Hyatt Regency Chicago.

Ashlee Rezin

The Chicago Police Department regularly touts the thousands of guns it gets during arrests, searches, gun “buybacks” and other means. ATF, the federal agency responsible for enforcing gun laws, says 37,657 guns were traced in Chicago over the five-year period covered by its report.

More than half of those guns originally were purchased out of state, according to ATF, which uses the serial number on a gun to try to determine its ownership trail from the manufacturer to the last person who had it. ATF has testing equipment and databases to perform those traces for the Chicago police and other agencies.

Only Houston had more gun traces than Chicago over the same five-year period with 38,823. Los Angeles had about 19,639 and New York, 12,891.

Yet only seven other federal court districts — in Arkansas, southern Ohio, Delaware, Nevada, Massachusetts, Kansas and southern Indiana — had lower prosecutor approval rates for gun cases than in Chicago.

There have been several high-profile federal efforts in recent years to crack down on gun trafficking and shootings, including Operation Legend, launched by former President Donald Trump after years of lagging prosecutions in Chicago.

A bullet casing where a man was shot in 2014 in Uptown.

A bullet casing where a man was shot in 2014 in Uptown.

Alex Wroblewski

Still, in the Northern District of Illinois, which includes Cook County and the collar counties, prosecutors approved only 45% of the gun cases presented to them. The ATF report said there are many reasons for a denial — from an expired statute of limitations to insufficient evidence.

Other big cities had much higher approval rates. In the Northern District of California, which includes San Francisco, the rate was 71%, and in the Eastern District of New York, which includes Brooklyn and Long Island, it was 63%.

Two law enforcement officials, on the condition of anonymity, said they’re frustrated with the low approval rate by federal prosecutors for gun cases here. They understand why the prosecutors are careful to bring cases they think they can win, but one official said “sometimes you just gotta swing the bat.”

They said Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul’s office has successfully prosecuted some of the gun cases federal prosecutors have turned down. Last month, for instance, Raoul announced gun trafficking charges against an Elgin man in a case referred to his office by ATF.

Asked about the U.S. attorney’s office’s 45% gun case approval rate in Chicago, ATF said in a statement: “As the report emphasizes, ‘state prosecution offices often had a broader range of potential firearm-related charges that could be readily filed to disrupt criminal activity associated with trafficking.’ This was particularly true in Illinois during the period covered by the report, as it had statutes specifically addressing firearm trafficking that predate the recently enacted federal statute.”

On a national level, ATF found nearly 60% of known recipients of illegally trafficked firearms were felons, the average number of trafficked guns was 16 per cases, and about 25% of those weapons were used to commit crimes.

More than half of the illegally trafficked guns investigated by ATF went through unlicensed dealers that aren’t required to perform background checks, according to the report.

The Biden administration is proposing a rule to require more gun sellers to become licensed and run background checks. Gun rights groups oppose that, saying it could overly burden private citizens trying to sell their guns. During the five years covered by the ATF report, 3,400 unlicensed dealers were investigated by the agency.

ATF says one of the country’s biggest “pipelines” of gun trafficking is from Indiana to Chicago. “Straw purchasers,” people with clean records who buy guns for criminals, are one of the biggest sources of guns illegally pouring into Chicago, authorities say.

In Chicago, former Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration tried to crack down on straw purchasers carrying guns from Indiana to Illinois by suing Westforth Sports Inc. in 2021 in Gary, saying its owner ignored warnings from ATF about suspicious purchases. Westforth argued Illinois courts didn’t have jurisdiction over sales in Indiana, and Cook County Judge Clare Quish dismissed the lawsuit last year.

In March, Mayor Brandon Johnson took a different tack to try to reduce shootings, suing Glock, a gun manufacturer, over a design that allows easy conversions of its semiautomatic pistols to machine guns. Many mass shootings in Chicago have involved “switches,” small devices attached to pistols that allow them to fire continuously with a single trigger pull.

Across the country over the past five years, Glock was the No. 1 manufacturer of recovered “crime guns” traced by the ATF, the agency’s report said. Glock pistols are the guns most likely to be equipped with a switch, experts say.

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