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If Chicago's gun control law is overturned, what next?

The Supreme Court will decide soon if Chicago's controversial handgun ban is unconstitutional. Both sides say such a decision would spur a slew of challenges to gun control laws elsewhere.

By / Staff writer / June 14, 2010

Ed Etheridge (r.) shows a customer a 9mm handgun at Rink's Gun and Sport in the Chicago, suburb of Lockport, Illinois, in this June 2008 file photo. Chicago's gun control laws push some people to nearby communities, to buy handguns.

Frank Polich/Reuters/File

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Chicago

Every spring, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley stands before a table full of confiscated firearms and urges federal and state lawmakers to pass new gun-control measures that he says will keep streets safer. This year, there's a twist: Mayor Daley is at risk of losing a gun-control law he already has.

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By the end of June, the US Supreme Court is slated to decide whether the city's 28-year ban on handguns – the last of its kind in the nation – is unconstitutional. If the decision goes against Chicago (and that's where the smart money is), the city will be forced back to the drawing board to find a new balance between gun rights and public safety.

More broadly, say legal experts, such a ruling will spur a slew of challenges to other gun regulations elsewhere – from hurdles to getting gun permits to bans on loaded weapons in public to rules forcing gun owners to keep weapons locked at home.

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The Chicago case is pivotal to Second Amendment defenders. If it goes their way, it will launch "a wide-open, exciting new field of constitutional litigation," says Alan Gura, a lawyer representing the Illinois challengers to Chicago's law. "Once this case is decided and hopefully ... we will prevail ... [Chicago] should look over its laws in good faith and try to see if there are any other problematic [gun] laws that need to be revisited. If the city will not revisit them ... I'm sure the courts will."

If, after 28 years, Chicago residents will again be able to own handguns and to buy them in the city, what effect will that have on public safety?

The answer depends on who's talking.

City police recovered 8,259 illegal firearms in 2009 – a 12.7 percent bump from 2008, according to police department data. The police credit the seizures for 2009's drop in gun-related homicides, down 9 percent from the year before.

But the data are not that clear-cut. There were fewer homicides in 2007 than in 2009, and the homicide count so far this year is on pace to surpass last year's level.

If the Chicago ban is invalidated, "I honestly think we're going to see business as usual," says John Worrall, a criminologist at the University of Texas at Dallas.

Handgun bans, he says, don't work because demand for guns is so high that plenty of people are willing to risk supplying them. Some people go to nearby communities, where there are no bans, to buy handguns. A more effective way to reduce crime, he says, is to weed out gun license applicants on the basis of criminal records and to restrict where people can use or carry handguns.

"Handgun bans target everybody, and that is the core issue," he says. "A broad brush is being applied and is making criminals out of law-abiding citizens."

Chicago police officials refused requests to comment on how fighting crime might change if the ban is lifted. A Chicago street cop, though, notes that when handguns are illegal, it's easy to spot the bad guys. They're the ones with the guns.

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