In Chicago, the race to get guns off the street often begins with a police stop.
Officers just need a pretext to search someone: A man in a white Ford Sedan blocking an alleyway. A bulge in a fanny pack at the beach. The smell of “fresh cannabis” wafting from an open window. Tinted windows. A missing license plate. Police reports show that the list goes on.
“Each gun recovered, regardless of how, is a potential life saved,” said former Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown in a press conference last year. It’s a mantra he repeated frequently in his time as police chief.
But in Chicago, gun enforcement overwhelmingly focuses on possession crimes — not use.
Officials justify the focus on confiscating guns — even if they are not being fired at anybody — as a way of curtailing violence. But these tactics have not substantially reduced shootings in Chicago. In fact, as possession arrests skyrocketed, shootings increased, but the percentage of shooting victims where someone was arrested in their case declined.
For this article, we read nearly 300 arrest reports to understand the tactics police use to find guns, and compiled decades of police data showing a history of discriminatory gun enforcement. We conducted more than 100 interviews with people navigating gun cases, researchers, attorneys and community members. Here is what we found:
From 2010 to 2022, we found that police made more than 38,000 arrests for illegal gun possession. These arrests — almost always a felony in Illinois — doubled during this timeframe.
Illegal possession is the most serious offense in most of the cases we analyzed, the charges often bear misleading names that imply violence, like “unlawful use of a weapon.”
Research by Loyola University Chicago shows that most people convicted in Illinois for these charges don’t go on to commit a violent crime. Instead, people who already committed violent crimes are more likely to do so again.
Although Black people comprise less than a third of the city’s population, they were more than 8 in 10 of those arrested for guns in the timeframe we reviewed. The majority are men in their 20s and 30s.
Even if not sentenced to prison, those we interviewed faced damning criminal records, probation, job loss, legal fees and car impoundments.
- Weapons arrests, which include illegal gun possession, are at their highest since the mid-‘90s.
“Guns are not assembly-line cases, and they shouldn’t be treated as such,” says Chris Hudspeth, 31, who has been incarcerated for illegal possession. “I’m scared for my life — and I gotta go to prison because I fear for my life, for my family’s safety? Because we’re not fortunate enough to live someplace else?”
The Chicago Police Department did not respond to repeated requests for an interview, nor did they comment on findings shared by The Marshall Project. Gun arrest practices rest with the next mayor, whom voters will choose in the upcoming runoff election.
“People are for ‘gun control’ but against ‘mass incarceration,’” said James Forman Jr., a professor at Yale Law School and author of “Locking Up Our Own.” “They haven’t thought about how this particular form of gun control ends up helping to produce and sustain mass incarceration.”
One evening last October, Chicago police pulled over Elijah Hudson, 29, for expired license plates, arrest reports show.
After he agreed to settle the ticket in court, body camera footage we reviewed of the arrest shows an officer asking Hudson, “What’s with the attitude?,” and then asking if he was a licensed gun owner.
“I just don’t know what that has to do with expired license plates,” Hudson responded, not answering the officer’s question.
To legally purchase a gun and carry it in public, Illinois residents need two licenses: a firearm owner’s permit that costs $11 online and a concealed carry card, otherwise known as a FOID and CCL. All together, the process can cost upwards of $300 in fees and take several months. If someone lacks both licenses — or has a gun owner’s card but not a concealed carry permit — they can be arrested for illegal possession.
Officers quickly became frustrated with Hudson, the footage shows, as he continued to question the relevancy of guns for the traffic stop.
“It has to do with all of our safeties. If there’s a firearm in this vehicle — all of our safeties are at risk now,” said an officer near the passenger side.
Hudson explained that his pistol was in a computer bag on the passenger-side floorboard. While he and an arresting officer standing near the driver’s side window debated over the stop, at least five additional police vehicles and nearly a dozen officers arrived on the scene.
“If he doesn’t have a FOID or CCL, I’m breaking the window — just letting you know,” another officer remarked while checking Hudson’s credentials.
Once police confirmed that Hudson was, in fact, a fully licensed gun owner, they arrested him for refusing an officer’s order, refusing to disclose his gun, and for having expired license plates.
A judge dismissed his charges weeks later.
In December, Hudson filed a complaint with the city’s police oversight agency. “I want the officers to be disciplined, and I want people to see how they have a presumption of criminality if you’re dark-skinned in Chicago, and you have legal firearms,” he said.
Illegal possession charges make up the majority of gun arrests.
According to our analysis of gun possession arrests from 2010 to 2022, White and Latino residents are underrepresented, despite both groups making up roughly a third of the city’s population. Over the years of data we reviewed, Chicago police arrested fewer than 1,000 White men.
We found that Black people make up most of those arrested across Chicago, regardless of neighborhood demographics. Two areas where White people were more likely to be arrested include the O’Hare and Midway airports, where Transportation Security Administration agents call police when someone brings a firearm through security.
But even after decades of gun arrests, crime data shows that Black communities in Chicago still bear the brunt of gun violence. The majority of those killed are Black men in their 20s and 30s.
Defenders of the current tactics argue that because gun violence harms Black communities, the arrests for gun violence reflect not racial disparities in enforcement, but the reality of where violence takes place.
But Daniel Webster, a researcher who studies gun violence reduction at Johns Hopkins University, says possession cases shouldn’t overshadow larger problems like gun trafficking or illegal sales. He said it’s important to acknowledge the disparity in gun violence without justifying racial profiling.
“Why would we not have enforcement of gun laws map on to that? But again, it doesn’t mean you need to stop and frisk everyone in the damn neighborhood,” Webster said.
At the end of 2022, Chicago Police reported more than 12,700 seizures. Many of the firearms recovered were revolvers and pistols, not semi-automatic rifles or ghost guns, and they often originate from nearby suburban gun stores, where they were first legally purchased.
Chicago’s current push to get guns off the street follows years of documented problems with some of the tactics its police use. A 2017 U.S. Department of Justice investigation reported that officers coerced residents into providing information on guns by dropping them off in dangerous areas.
Under outgoing Mayor Lori Lightfoot, arrests for violating the state’s weapons laws are among their highest in more than 20 years.
Neither the mayor’s office nor runoff candidate Paul Vallas’ campaign responded to requests for comment.
Brandon Johnson’s campaign said he would continue to crack down on illegal gun possession as mayor, including creating a specific police unit called the “Illegal Guns Department,” adding more detectives, and cracking down on guns coming from states with lax laws. His office did not directly address our findings on possession arrests.
“We must confront the violent crime that is paralyzing our neighborhoods while also eradicating the systemic racism that exists in American law enforcement,” a campaign spokesperson wrote in an email.
To see what this enforcement looks like in practice, The Marshall Project focused on more than 225 gun arrests conducted over last year’s Memorial and Labor Day weekends. We picked these holidays because they tend to have a heightened police presence.
We found that the overwhelming majority of those arrested were Black men. Most people had no arrest warrants out, nor were they on supervised release, probation or suspected of being in a gang. In most of the incidents we analyzed, police were not responding to 911 calls about a person with a gun.
In arrests where possession was the most severe charge — about 140 of the cases — we found that more than 7 in 10 began with a simple traffic violation. After this initial stop, police often used some other justification for a search, like the smell of marijuana.
In a third of the stops, we found the person arrested had their gun owner’s permit, but not the license that allowed carrying the loaded gun.
“People in the Black community have now started to teach themselves to just comply, just do what the officers want so you can stay alive,” said Takenya Nixon, an assistant public defender. “It completely negates the fact that you have constitutional rights, and that you do not have to allow an officer to search a car, and you are well within your rights to question an officer.”
The arrest reports show that many people were cooperative with police when they asked about guns. In some cases, they told police they had the gun for safety.
“He has the firearm for protection due to him being shot and robbed in the past,” police noted after one arrest. “Arrestee related that he was shot at two Mondays ago in an attempt[ed] carjacking where he was the victim,” another report reads.
We discovered that police stop a vast amount of people and find a miniscule amount of weapons. For instance, officers stopped more than 6,500 people from the Friday evening before Memorial Day through the following Monday. They confiscated about 130 guns in possession arrests.
“We have an incredible problem when it comes to gun violence, but our strategy is failing, and it’s making it worse,” said Cook County Public Defender Sharone Mitchell Jr. “Guilty or not, there’s a significant impact when it comes to really damaging, invasive police behavior.”By the time Chris Hudspeth turned 30, he had spent most of his adult life incarcerated for illegal gun possession cases. He says he carried guns after witnessing gun violence at a young age and eventually losing his best friend to a shooting.
“I can’t really explain the rage that I felt, but I just wanted revenge,” he said. “All my friends were joining gangs and a lot of shootings were going on. It kind of scared me…that’s when guns started getting for real.”
By age 23, he was arrested as an “armed habitual criminal,” under the state’s three-strikes law. He spent the remainder of his 20s behind bars.
“I’d never in my life heard of a [gun owner’s permit] until I went to prison,” he said.
Some of the Black men we interviewed had records of serious crimes, including domestic violence. Others had previous gun possession cases or told us police had searched them for firearms before. For some, it was their first arrest.
Most of the arrestees we interviewed did not want to be named because they feared it would affect their ongoing cases or stigmatize them.
“I’m not really able to work because the day I was arrested I was in the middle of an Uber Eats order, and they got notified that I was arrested with a gun,” one 32-year-old man wrote in an email. “I can no longer work with them, and my car got daily tow holding fees, and now I’m being evicted. So that one traffic stop pretty much ruined my life.”
Chicago isn’t alone in its practices. We found major racial disparities in enforcement in cities across the country, despite differences in gun laws and homicide rates, including in New York City, Houston, Cleveland, and Memphis. Reports show that these patterns exist at the federal level, too.
Studies have shown that policing targeting specific high-violence areas can lead to reductions in violence. However, the effects are limited to the cities and time periods that researchers study. Even researchers who found arrests and gun seizures reduced crime raised concerns about how police casting an overly-wide net in Black communities can sow distrust or result in misconduct.
“There are barriers about who gets a gun, thus, there are disparities in who gets charged with them and who has the privilege to have them,” said Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx.
A few weeks before last Christmas, Bertha Purnell sat in a dingy Chicago courtroom, anxious and angry.
Her 28-year-old son Maurice was fatally shot less than a mile from her home on the city’s West Side nearly six years before. After the murder, she retired as a nurse, created her own nonprofit and became a victims’ rights activist.
Purnell said that even before her son was killed, she opposed illegal gun ownership.
“We have to somehow get a hold, to make sure that guns are carried legally and people are responsible gun owners,” she said.
Although an average of more than 3,000 people are shot in Chicago each year, the type of justice Purnell experienced is fleeting for most. Since 2010, records show police have failed to make an arrest in more than 8 in 10 shootings.
Our analysis found that police often step up gun possession enforcement following spikes in violence. The shift is stark. At the beginning of 2010, fewer than half of gun arrests involved cases where possession was the most serious offense. As of last year, they now account for more than 80% of arrests with a gun — even as homicides remain their highest in decades.
Records show that nearly 60% of the 31,000 new felony cases pursued by Foxx’s office in the past three years were for illegal gun possession; roughly 4% were for homicides.
Retired Chicago police detective Kevin Scott says solving violent crimes is harder than making weapons possession arrests because detectives have to compile several types of evidence to prove guilt.
“There’s so many other hoops you have to jump through to determine if someone even committed the crime of murder versus someone [who] had a gun on them,” he said. “You can arrest somebody with a gun all day long.”
For Purnell, the issue of guns in Chicago prompts an endless list of questions. She doesn’t understand how so many firearms seem to make it into the city, how so many young people can afford them, and how they intend to use them.
Despite these anxieties, her views on gun ownership are unwavering. “If you feel like you need to protect yourself, then you need a legal gun,” Purnell said. “I just can’t see justifying illegal guns. I cannot see it.”
After several attempts, including as recently as last week, the Chicago Police Department did not respond to our reporting findings.
“Already this year, officers have recovered 1,769 guns — an average of more than 29 guns taken off the street every single day since the year began,” the department said in its February crime update. The monthly report attributed the arrests, in part, to a decline in shootings.
The Marshall Project spent just over a year reporting this story. In that time, more than 3,200 people were shot in Chicago and more than 600 died from their injuries. They were shot while trick-or-treating, saying goodbye to their children, or sitting in a grocery store parking lot.
Police have made an arrest in less than 1 in 5 of their cases.
Lakeidra Chavis is a staff writer for The Marshall Project. She has written on wide-ranging topics including the rise in Black suicides during the pandemic, the changing structure of gangs, the opioid crisis and victim compensation. Lakeidra previously reported at The Trace, ProPublica Illinois and NPR stations in Chicago and Alaska. She lives in Chicago, Illinois.
Geoff Hing is a data reporter for The Marshall Project. He has worked as part of investigative, data and news applications teams in a number of newsrooms, including The Arizona Republic, APM Reports and The Chicago Tribune. Geoff lives in Phoenix, Arizona.
This article was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system. Sign up for their newsletters, and follow them on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.