Suburban guns: Will Chicago lawsuit stem flow of illegal weapons into city?

A group of Chicagoans filed a lawsuit against three suburban towns on Tuesday, claiming that weak oversight of gun shops in those towns is fueling gun violence in black neighborhoods in Chicago.

Frank Polich/Reuters/File
A customer inspects a 9mm handgun at Rink's Gun and Sport in the Chicago, suburb of Lockport, Illinois, in June 2008.

As gun violence spikes once again in Chicago, gun control advocates in the city are pointing fingers at an old enemy: the Chicago suburbs.

A lawsuit filed on Tuesday in Cook County Circuit Court claims that weak oversight of gun shops in the villages of Riverdale, Lyons, and Lincolnwood outside Chicago is fueling gun violence in black neighborhoods in the city.

Citing a May 2014 report from the Chicago Police Department, the suit says that four local gun dealers – including one in each of those towns, as well as one in Gary, Ind. – supplied almost 20 percent of the guns recovered at Chicago crime scenes between 2009 and 2013.

Overall, most “crime guns” in Chicago were actually first purchased outside Illinois – almost 60 percent of them between 2009 and 2013, according to the CPD report, including from states as far away as Georgia. But some see an added danger from illegal gun purchases in the Chicago suburbs: the speed with which they could be used to commit crimes in the city.

The challenges that Chicago is facing from guns that were sold nearby are not unique. It is “incredibly common” that the guns being used in crime in cities were first sold by stores in surrounding suburbs, says Daniel W. Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research in Baltimore.

“That is certainly the case in Baltimore, Milwaukee, Detroit, and Washington, D.C.,” adds Mr. Webster, who made his comments via e-mail.

Legal experts are skeptical that the lawsuit filed Tuesday will succeed. Still, similar concerns in various US cities have resulted in some legal proceedings that have had a potent impact on illegal gun use, studies have found.

Plaintiffs in the current lawsuit include Chicago mothers who lost family members to gun violence and members of the Coalition for Safe Chicago Communities.

Michael Persoon, one of the attorneys who filed the suit, said that the litigation aims “to stop the export of guns from the suburbs into Chicago’s African-American neighborhoods,” according to the Chicago Tribune.

Representatives for the towns have said that municipal governments work regularly with the CPD to monitor the gun shops. Steven Elrod, the attorney for Lincolnwood, told the Chicago Sun-Times: “While we certainly appreciate the concerns that they raise, we cannot see any conceivable basis for liability on the part of the village of Lincolnwood.”

Chicago is one of the most violent cities in the country. Over the July 4 weekend, shootings in the city left 10 people dead, including a 7-year-old boy, and 55 wounded. In Chicago, like other cities with high rates of violent crime, illegal guns on the street are seen as a primary driver of the violence.

Illinois doesn’t regulate gun stores through the state government, leaving it to local municipalities instead. Although gun dealers often do follow federal and state law, the new lawsuit claims that the rules in the three towns have “lax or insufficient methods of administration in licensing and regulating gun dealers.”

In general, many crime guns that are traced back to suburban stores were bought by a “straw purchaser” – someone who is legally allowed to buy a gun, but then sells it to someone who isn’t, which is a federal crime.

While the Chicago lawsuit doesn’t directly allege that gun stores in Riverdale, Lyons, and Lincolnwood are conducting illegal sales, it claims that some dealers “are willing to look the other way and make sales even when they suspect the buyer is a straw purchaser for illegal users or minors,” according to the Tribune.

The suit recommends various new regulations, including training employees to identify straw purchasers and keeping a log of a store’s gun sales in which the weapon was later recovered in a crime.

The lawsuit is being brought under the Illinois Civil Rights Act of 2003, under the argument that the villages are allowing gun stores to sell in a manner that disproportionately jeopardizes the lives of African-Americans.

But it will be hard for the plaintiffs to prove there was specific intent to harm blacks in Chicago, George Mocsary, a law professor at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, told the Tribune.

“I suspect that it will be dismissed,” he said.

These cases are especially hard to win because of federal legislation protecting gun makers and dealers from lawsuits brought by individuals and municipalities. After Congress passed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act in 2005, gun makers and dealers gained protections against suits “resulting from the criminal or unlawful misuse of a qualified product by the person or a third party.”

Still, some cities have seen progress in the fight against illegal guns.

In 2006, New York City sued 27 gun dealers that were the top sources of guns recovered in crimes in the city, following the fatal shootings of two police officers and a young child caught in crossfire. As part of the settlement agreements, the court assigned a special monitor to help the stores implement new safety measures. One year later, supply of crime guns from those stores had dropped by 85 percent.

In Milwaukee, pressure on one suburban gun dealer led him to voluntarily change his practices, which led to a 76 percent reduction in the flow of new guns from that gun shop to criminals in Milwaukee, and a 44 percent decrease in new crime guns citywide.

Police in both the Detroit and Gary metropolitan areas conducted sting operations that identified gun dealers conducting illegal sales. Each city subsequently sued the dealers. In the ensuing year, Detroit saw an appreciable drop in crime guns, although Gary didn’t, according to a 2006 analysis.

Chicago itself tried a sting strategy against gun dealers in the metropolitan area in the late 1990s. The six-month police operation – in which undercover officers posed as straw purchasers – resulted in seven guilty pleas and three cases that went to trial.

In the first 12 months after the operation came to light, the city saw an overall 46.4 percent reduction in the supply of new guns to criminals, according to the same 2006 analysis. This success was in part a result of the publicity the sting received, and also the fact that “the evidence collected from the stings was used in criminal indictments against gun store owners and employees,” the analysis said.

In one of the cases that went to trial, the co-owner of a gun store and a store clerk were convicted of illegal gun sales. In the two others, the defendants were acquitted. One of those defendants, Donald Beltrame, came out of the process eager to commit to reform.

Annette Nance-Holt – a plaintiff in the current lawsuit and the mother of a Chicago teen who was shot and killed on a public bus in 2007 and – would contend that little has changed in the 15 years since those trials.

Speaking at the announcement of the suit Tuesday, she said, “It’s quite obvious we’ve got to do something more than we’ve done in the past.”

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