Paying the toll in lives on Chicago’s 'Gun Skyway'
In an office at the Maywood headquarters for the Cook County sheriff, there’s a large map showing the coverage area for the department.
Cook County is huge, approximately 945 square miles stretching from Northwest suburban Barrington to areas south of Chicago like Calumet City and Lansing.
But Sheriff Tom Dart is worried about a jurisdiction way bigger than that, where he has no control at all -- the state of Indiana.
Especially parts of Northwest Indiana that borders Chicago and the southern reaches of Cook County.
“With the laws that we have on the books, there’s a lot of different things that we can do, something things a little better, within our jurisdiction,” Dart told WBEZ this week. “But when you have this unbelievable flow of guns coming in from another source, where you have no ability to change the laws over there, have no ability really to enforce the laws over there, it makes it very difficult.“
And, more often than not, the source of these guns are Indiana gun shows.
Hunters and gun aficionados converge on these shows held throughout the year across Indiana, including in nearby places like Crown Point and Valparaiso. What has Illinois officials upset, and, it should be said, a lot of Hoosiers as well, is the ability for individuals to buy as many guns as they want without first having to go through a background check. At the gun shows all a buyer needs is an Indiana I.D. that says they’re 18 years old.
Moreover, a recent study by the University of Chicago Crime Lab showed that about 30 percent of guns recovered in Chicago crimes came from Indiana.
Often times, those guns, like motorists, cross over Indiana on Chicago’s iconic toll bridge, the Skyway.
“We have these artificial borders that were created hundreds of years ago saying this is Indiana, this is Illinois. Well, the gangbangers, the gun dealers, the bad people, they don’t care about the borders,” Dart said. “Quite the contrary, the actually sort of like it that way because they realize you can slip across the border and it complicates law enforcement’s ability to track you.”
Dart recently visited a gun show in Crown Point to see how some illegal guns begin their journey. What he saw took him aback.
“The reality to watch, the world of the handguns, just how freely how those were being sold and purchased and some of the people that were making the purchases that clearly some of our own people recognize some of these folks,” Dart said.
Those folks, Dart says, were known to be from Illinois and yet were somehow buying guns in Indiana.
“Just how easy it was, that was mind numbing to us because you hear people talk about but when you see it first hand, it’s really just wide open,” Dart said.
Indiana isn’t the only state bordering Illinois with loose gun laws, but none are as intimately tied to Chicago’s recent epidemic of gun violence.
And nowhere is that connection more obvious than on a street south of Chicago. Stand on the east side and you’re on State Line Avenue in Hammond, Indiana. Walk back across the street and suddenly you’re on State Line Road in Calumet City, Illinois.
“Obviously being so close to the Indiana border has been tough on Calumet City. We’re very close,” says Calumet City Mayor Michelle Mariewicz Qualkinbush said. She’s referring mostly to the lower property and retail taxes in Indiana.
Qualkinbush just won a 4th term as mayor on Tuesday in this predominantly African-American city. Like many here she was actually born in Hammond at a hospital right on State Line Avenue.
“We’re alike in many ways and Hammond is just like Calumet City even though maybe they don’t think so,” Qualkinbush said.
These two cities have a lot in common: traffic congestion, issues of economic development -- and young people who can get into trouble on both sides of the border.
The difference? When you’re in Indiana it’s a lot easier to get a gun. And once that happens, it’s not hard to see how some of them eventually make their way to Chicago.
The funny thing is, it used to be the other way around. Folks in Hammond were worried about criminals coming over from Cal City. A few years ago some Hammond officials even proposed erecting a six-inch barrier in the middle of State Line Avenue to make it harder for would-be thieves to cross. But that’s mostly a side issue.
Some Calumet City residents like Jerry Tarka wonder, if Indiana did amend its gun laws, would it actually help reduce Chicago’s crime problem?
“The law abiding citizens will register their guns, and they’ll go to the classes and they’ll have the background checks performed just like they’re supposed to, but I don’t know if the element that we’re trying to get the guns away from is going to adhere to any of those laws so I don’t know how useful they are at all,” Tarka said.
Meanwhile, Calumet City Mayor Qualkinbush says it may be too difficult to deal with the gun debate at the local level.
“We’ve seen some things that we don’t want to see in our town so I think it’s a tough issue for national leaders to come up with some uniform solution to all of this but I think the bad guys will always be able to get the guns,” Qualkinbush said.
But Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart isn’t waiting to see what the feds, or Indiana, or even his own state legislature will do.
“We operate almost exclusively with the notion there will no changes on the federal level, there will be none on the state level, so with what we have, how
can we make this thing better?,” Dart said.
Later this month, Dart says two new operations will get underway to try to slow the Gun Skyway. He credits Northwest Indiana officials and law enforcement for working as a real partner in solving the issue. But he’s perplexed as to why the rest of Indiana won’t work harder to fix the problem.
“When you have objective, factual information, showing that people, innocent people are routinely being killed and we don’t look at that as a moral issue, I can’t understand that,” Dart said.
The one-time Illinois state legislator says the issue has little to do with gun rights.
“No! There’s ways to deal with it where law abiding citizens don’t even know the new rules are in effect and we all operate as a team,” Dart said. “We need to do that otherwise you need to get out of government.”
In the meantime, Indiana’s next big gun show is scheduled for later this month in Crown Point.
Michael Puente is a reporter for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @MikePuenteNews.