Chicago activists sue suburbs over guns. Are existing laws not enough?

The city's murder rate remains high despite expansive background checks. Lawyers for the Coalition for Safe Chicago Communities are targeting straw purchases. 

Christian K. Lee/AP
Antonio Brown, father of 7-year-old Amari Brown, speaks with the media near a sign honoring his son, Monday, July 6, 2015, in Chicago. Amari Brown was celebrating the Fourth of July with his family, and killed overnight during a weekend outbreak of gun-related violence in Chicago.

Civil rights activists in Chicago sued three Chicago suburbs Tuesday and urged the state of Illinois to enforce regulations to crack down on neighborhood gun violence.

The lawsuit focused on what complainants found to be lax regulations in gun stores.

Chicago has already expanded background checks to cover all firearms purchases in the state, including transactions that involved private parties, online orders, licensed dealers or gun shows, following a gun-control law that came into effect in 2014.

But deaths from firearms have persisted.

The Chicago Tribune reported 10 people were killed and 55 were wounded due to gun violence over the Fourth of July weekend. The youngest casualty was 7-year-old Amari Brown.

Since 2011, annual murders in Chicago have hovered above 400. In 2012, just over 500 people were killed by guns in Chicago.

Lawyers for the Coalition for Safe Chicago Communities filed the lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court against the Illinois towns of Riverdale, Lyons and Lincolnwood and said gun stores there, along with those in Gary, Indiana, supply a fifth of guns seized by police at crime scenes in the city, Reuters reported.

An opinion piece in The Chicago Tribune argues guns flow into Chicago from states with less restrictive rules on sales, such as Indiana.

The lawsuit asked a judge to order the towns to force the gun shops to do stringent background checks on their employees and train them to be vigilant about indicators customers are purchasing guns for someone other than themselves.

In a 5-4 decision in June 2014, the US Supreme Court ruled such straw purchases of guns are illegal. Despite the verdict, the new standard has been difficult to enforce because, in many states, private citizens can buy and sell guns without required background checks or notification of law enforcement.

The lawsuit also demanded stores should keep a log of purchases of all guns that are later recovered in a crime and block sales to any customer that purchased guns used in a crime, Reuters noted.

Chicago, unlike 34 American states, has laws that enforce background checks at gun shows, according to Governing magazine.

But does such regulation always work?

The pro-reform gun group, Everytown for Gun Safety, finds in states that require background checks for all gun sales, 38 percent fewer women are shot to death by intimate partners and 39 percent fewer law enforcement are shot to death with handguns.

The organization also published a report, which found in many states, unlicensed individuals can skirt the law more easily by buying guns online.

But critics of background checks say most criminals buy on the black market so wouldn’t be affected by such regulation – an argument commonly made by the National Rifle Association.

Critics also argue that background checks might be too broad and criminalize otherwise lawful citizens. For example, a person could let a friend borrow their gun for a hunting trip without knowing he or she was complicit in an illegal transfer.

There are also issues regarding the lack of prosecutions enforced in cases of falsified information on background checks. Mic noted the FBI reported 71,000 instances of people lying on their background checks to buy guns in 2009, but the Justice Department prosecuted less than 1 percent.

A 2014 congressional report documented Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s commitment for tough background checks in Chicago to be accompanied by local initiatives to tackle the issue's effect on school-age youth, such as after-school tutoring and summer jobs programs. 

The same report included recommendations from Mike Thompson, Chair of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force. Thompson said evidence shows that every day at licensed gun stores where background checks are required, the system stops more than 17 felons, nearly 50 domestic abusers and nearly 20 fugitives from buying a gun. But without proper legislation, these people could purchase a gun online or at a gun show.

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