It's enticing to think that the Supreme Court agreeing late last month to settle once and for all the legality of Chicago's handgun ban will have some major effect on crime in Chicago, but in all likelihood it won't.
The court's decision to finally weigh in comes at a time when neither gun rights advocates nor gun control proponents are satisfied with the current state of things. Opponents point to the city's second-highest-in-the-nation murder rate and say the ban isn't working. Proponents of the ban say it doesn't work perfectly because it isn't big enough -- not tough enough on dealers or with too many holes in the tracking process.
You can argue the merits and legality of a handgun ban in the abstract until you are blue in the face, but what's clear from the 27 years it has been in existence is that Chicago's ban does not work the way it was intended.
It makes it harder for the public to get handguns, but not for criminals to get them. One of the most common refrains heard from gun rights advocates is that bans create a situation where criminals have handguns and law-abiding citizens do not. Surely, that's not the situation policy makers had in mind when they drafted the legislation.
Now, that's not to say there are no arguments for having one. Law enforcement agencies overwhelmingly favor bans because it allows them to arrest criminals just for having handguns on them. Legalize handguns and they can no longer arrest people just for walking down the street carrying a piece.
But there's no question criminals can get handguns if they want them.
I once set out to see just how hard it would be to buy a gun illegally in Chicago. I went to see Father Bruce Wellems, pastor of Holy Cross Church in Back of the Yards, and he told me he knew exactly where to go to find a buyer. I decided to first call the Chicago Police Department and ask if they knew about this spot (they did) and if so, why they didn't shut it down (because a new dealer would show up the next day).
They warned me not to go ahead with my journalistic exercise and try to buy a gun, in part because it was dangerous and also because if I actually managed to buy one and then wrote about it, they would have all the evidence they needed to arrest and convict me.
So I didn't buy a handgun, but I'm convinced that if I needed one tomorrow I could get it.
The fundamental problem with gun bans is that they must be comprehensive and powerful to have any chance of working. The one kind of ban that could ever work is the kind the founder's feared when they wrote the Second Amendment.
Chicago's handgun ban is easily undermined by driving outside the city limits. Some municipalities add waiting periods, but if you're willing to wait a couple of weeks you can get one easily enough.
In Illinois, most guns used in crimes are handguns. Of the guns recovered from Illinois crime scenes, far more come from inside Illinois than from any other state.
When I asked Special Agent Thomas Ahern of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms about this phenomenon, he said something illuminating: "All guns start out legal. It's somewhere down the road where they become illegal."
The justices may want to keep that in mind as they weigh Chicago's handgun ban. If illegal handguns are being bought legally, then what really is the ban accomplishing?
Regardless of whether there's a ban or not, criminals will have guns. Those who fear that repealing the ban will lead to a spike in the number of guns on the street should look to Washington, D.C.
The real question is what if anything can be done to stop gun violence.
And I seriously doubt the justices have an answer for that.
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