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There Is A New Effort To Target Gun Trafficking In Chicago


There's a new sense of urgency about getting illegal guns off the streets as violent crime continues to plague communities across the country. Federal and law enforcement agents are teaming up to target gun trafficking, and residents in hard-hit areas of Chicago are stepping up to fight gun violence as well. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: It's been a tough year for cities across the country, including Chicago. The actual number of murders is high here - nearly 400 so far this year - and shootings are up. There's a stream of tragic examples. Charles McKenzie, a community activist who fights against gun violence, lived it firsthand during the July 4 holiday weekend. That's when more than 100 people in Chicago were hit by gunfire, and more than 18 died. McKenzie rushed to a busy intersection on South Halsted Street after getting a phone call telling him that his 1-month-old niece was among seven people injured in a shooting.

CHARLES MCKENZIE: It's painful because when gun violence hit home, it's like somebody stabbed you in the heart.

CORLEY: Doctors performed successful surgery on the infant. Video from a street surveillance camera shows what happened - three gunmen jumping out of a car and shooting in all directions while people fled. Asiaha Butler lives about a block away. She says she was flabbergasted when she watched the video and saw one of the shooters struggling with a large gun as he got back in the car.

ASIAHA BUTLER: The guy who shot, I saw in the video, couldn't even handle how big that gun was. These are weapons that you have to be trained for in the military, and they're just in the hands of 16-year-olds - can barely drive, can barely shoot. This is an America problem.

CORLEY: There's no count of illegal guns in the country. However, the latest figures from the Small Arms Survey, a Swiss-based research group, shows about 45% of the guns held by civilians worldwide are in the United States. That was an estimated 390 million weapons four years ago, and gun-buying in the United States has since been on the rise. In Chicago, there are no gun stores. Still, police regularly recover more illegal firearms in this city than police in New York and Los Angeles. Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown says this year is no exception.

DAVID BROWN: Year to date, gun recoveries are 6,629. That's a 26% increase from 2020 at this point in the year.

CORLEY: For years, the University of Chicago Crime Lab has worked with the Chicago police to identify the source of the guns at Chicago crime scenes. Its 2017 Gun Trace Report found about 40% of the weapons came from other parts of Illinois, mostly from federally licensed gun dealers and suburbs just outside of Chicago. The remaining 60% came from states with less regulation of firearms than Illinois, including Mississippi, Wisconsin and at the top of the list, Indiana, just across the border. An example? A 9-millimeter Glock handgun. Chicago Police Superintendent Brown says it was recovered about 30 miles outside of Chicago in Hammond, Ind. Police matched it to shell casings found last year at several shooting scenes in three Chicago police districts. Then early this year...

BROWN: A homicide in the 8th District where shell casings were recovered matching this gun.

CORLEY: A few days later, a drive-by shooting and another murder in the same area, where shell casings matched the same Glock 19.

BROWN: That's one gun recovered that caused this kind of damage to the people of Chicago.

CORLEY: Roseanna Ander, the executive director at the University of Chicago's Crime Lab, says that's exactly why there's more determination to attack illegal gun trafficking.

ROSEANNA ANDER: It's really, really important that we not wait until the gun is in the city of Chicago, in someone's hands, and the trigger has been pulled. And it's great that there are efforts now to focus on not just the person caught with the gun but who put the gun into the hands of the person.

CORLEY: In many cases, that person is a straw purchaser, someone who can pass a background check and then funnels the firearm to individuals who may be too dangerous or too young to legally possess guns. Yesterday, Chicago police announced a new team of officers who will target straw purchasers. Earlier this spring, the city of Chicago sued one Indiana gun shop, and Everytown Law, the legal arm of a gun safety group, joined the lawsuit. Director Alla Lefkowitz says that for more than five years, nearly half of the prosecutions for straw purchases in the area involved guns purchased at that one store.

ALLA LEFKOWITZ: That's, like, a tremendous amount. And it really does beg the question of why are individual purchasers being punished while the source of these firearms is not?

CORLEY: That may change as the firearm trafficking strike forces begin their work in Chicago and four other cities - New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., all part of gun trafficking corridors. There have been similar efforts in the past. What's different this time around, both nationally and locally, is an effort to attack poverty and other forces that contribute to violent crime. There's additional funds for jobs, intervention and outreach. The focus will be on several neighborhoods, including Chicago's Englewood.

Back at 66th and Halsted, Asiaha Butler says since illegal guns and gun violence has devastated so many lives, there's plenty of room for people to address it in different ways. But she says policymakers need to involve people who live with the danger of gun violence more often in the planning.

BUTLER: I think in Chicago, we are active at our police base, but you're not activating the resident base.

CORLEY: Butler is a co-founder of RAGE, the Resident Association of Greater Englewood, and says that group is doing its part by encouraging people to get more engaged in the community. This day, she and other members are hosting their weekly free resource and market day, making sure perishable food and other items people may need are stacked on outdoor shelves.

BUTLER: The majority of people who are in these communities plagued by violence are not killers. But there's so much attention because they wreak so much havoc, and what they do is so destructive, and so you got to tackle it from every angle.

CORLEY: There's hope that the new focus on gun trafficking and better support will be instrumental. However, everyone here knows there's no quick fix to ending the gun violence that illegal guns on the street so often brings.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBOHANDS' "OUTSIDER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.