Chicago gun laws bar museum from displaying Nazi weapon seized by WWII hero

What’s a military museum without firearms of yesteryear?

Chicago Alderman Edward Burke introduced an ordinance last week that would allow museums in the Windy City to possess and display unloaded guns classified as “curios or relics” after learning that the Pritzker Military Library and other city museums are currently banned from including them in exhibits. If passed, the museum’s president and CEO told it would allow its estimated 15,000 annual visitors to see a significant World War II artifact personally returned stateside from a now-deceased U.S. Army officer.

“Alderman Burke heard our story about this and really came to the same conclusion we did – there’s really no clear code for museums,” Ken Clarke said Tuesday. “And because of the lack of clarity, we haven’t taken any chances. So rather than hope for the best, we wanted to do this properly.”

A German Walther PP 7.65-mm. handgun donated to the museum by relatives of U.S. Army Maj. Gen. William P. Levine — one of the highest-ranking Jewish generals in American history — is currently kept in a safe along with a dozen other handguns at a gun range in suburban Lombard, where they are exempt from the Chicago Firearms Ordinance, Clarke said.


Levine, who obtained the semiautomatic pistol from a Nazi officer during World War II, was among the first Allied soldiers to liberate the Dachau concentration camp in 1945. His relatives donated his uniform, military papers and artifacts, including the handgun, to the Pritzker Military Library following his death at age 97 in March, but the historically significant firearm remains outside Chicago limits and away from visitors’ eyes.

“General Levine had the very unique experience of interviewing both captors and captives at Dachau as a U.S. intelligence officer,” Clarke said. “So when you actually have a story attached to Levine, the historical value goes through the roof. For us, it means a heck of a lot historically.”

Under Burke’s proposal, which was formally introduced on Wednesday, Chicago museums would be permitted to display unloaded firearms like Levine’s firearm if classified as “curios and relics,” which are defined by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives as firearms that are at least 50 years old, certified by the curator of a municipal, state or federal museum or any gun that derives a “substantial part” of its monetary value from rare features or associations with historical figures, periods or events.

“Chicago is home to several world-class museums,” Burke said in a statement. “And it has come to my attention that such an exemption is reasonably warranted to allow such institutions to display unloaded firearms that often accompany uniforms and other historical artifacts.”

Levine, with the permission from U.S. military officials, brought the handgun back to the United States after 30 years in the Army Reserve. His experiences at the concentration camp near Munich reportedly haunted him for nearly four decades after the war.

"Every time he'd talk about it, when he'd come to the sentence, 'And then I came to Dachau,' he'd break down," his wife Rhoda told the Chicago Tribune in April. "He couldn't get that sentence out without the vivid memory of it. That choked him up."

In 1995, Levine told the newspaper he ultimately began to share his experiences to local high school and college students, as well as with visitors at the Illinois Holocaust Museum, as a way to educate others about the atrocities of war.

"For me, the most important and effective method of preventing another Holocaust is truth and education," Levine said.