Any night can explode into gunfire in the Austin neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side.
Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy knows that well. On New Year’s Eve, he went on patrol there with one of his officers, as he occasionally does, and seized an illegal gun from a car during a routine traffic stop.
It was just one in a sea of weapons the end up in Chicago’s South Side and West Side, more often then not with the serial numbers filed off.
Last year, the city hit 506 homicides, and this year, killings again are stacking up at a rate faster than one a day.
“I’ve had eight cops shot in the last year and a half that I’ve been here," McCarthy said. "Somebody’s got to do something about it besides putting ourselves [Chicago police officers] in harm’s way."
He and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel are in sync in their push for new gun laws and are getting support from state lawmakers in Springfield. The Public Health Committee of the state Senate rapidly approved bills that would ban the sale of semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity magazines during the lame-duck session.
The legislation is moving quickly, riding a wave of emotion triggered by the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The timing is in keeping with the stated philosophy of Emanuel that we should use times of crisis to mobilize people and demand change.
“As somebody who stood by President Clinton’s side to make sure we had a ban on assault weapons, I do not want to see more weapons on the street,” Emanuel said.
However, McCarthy acknowledged aiming at assault weapons misses the mark when dealing with Chicago’s gang violence. The weapon used is generally a handgun and rarely is it purchased through legal channels. McCarthy wants to target straw purchasing, which is when legal gun buyers will purchase a weapon and then let it loose in the illegal market.
“You buy ten 9 millimeters, then you walk out the door and you give them to whoever you want," McCarthy said. "There is no accountability. Then, in a year, we recover your gun in a shooting, you say, ‘well I lost it.’ ... That’s the end of it. There’s nothing we can do about it."
He is pushing for a law that puts the burden back on the gun owner to report if a weapon is lost, stolen or sold. Emanuel is pushing for a database of gun offenders, very similar to those established for sex offenders.
Gun rights advocates are not in their corner. Don Moran, president of the Illinois State Rifle Association, thinks new laws will not make a dent in the violence. The illegal guns are already out there. The people buying and shooting them with reckless abandon won’t even learn that the gun laws exist, let alone respect them.
Moran thinks Illinois politicians are only pushing gun laws to create a debate and distraction from the huge fiscal problems in Illinois.
“The bigger the problems they have to solve, and the harder the media would take a look at those things, the harder they want you to look at something else,” he said.
Although the gun laws are moving quickly through the Illinois legislature, the lame duck session ends Wednesday. McCarthy worries that the emotion supporting the new laws will die down while the opposition has time to grow.
“My fear is that it’s already slowing ... and nothing is going to come of it, just like nothing came of Columbine or Virginia Tech.”