The Gun Trace Report released publicly Sunday by the city of Chicago contains some important kernels of truth, and those kernels could lead to effective steps to reduce violent crime in Chicago. Sadly, the report's misguided solutions will, with a few exceptions, do nothing to end the mayhem.
Trace data are records of where a firearm first entered the retail market. Breathlessly presenting the proportion of crime guns originally purchased at a particular store without any context is evidence that someone was asleep during Statistics 101. Unless these trace numbers are presented as a proportion of all guns sold by a particular gun seller with a federal firearms license, called an FFL, and these proportions are compared across all FFLs, these trace numbers are utterly meaningless in identifying "bad apple" gun dealers.
Moreover, even if a particular FFL has sold a high proportion of recovered crime guns, that by itself is meaningless. The vast majority of crime guns are possessed illegally, so does it not follow that FFLs whose customers reside in high-crime (burglary-prone, for example) areas might show a higher proportion of crime guns recovered? Those are the customers who are more likely to be the victims of burglaries.
There are some important truths and statistically sound observations in this report, a collaboration among the mayor's office, Chicago Police Department and University of Chicago Crime Lab, but these facts undermine the suggestion in the report that state-level gun dealer licensing would have any effect on gun crime rates.
13.2 percent of the recovered firearms are recovered from juveniles, who cannot legally possess a firearm.
94.7 percent were recovered from an individual other than the original purchaser at a gun dealer.
A recent study of offenders in Cook County Jail indicates that the vast majority of illegally used or possessed firearms are obtained through an offender's social network, family or other personal connections.
It's not the dealers who need to be licensed, as their transactions are legal and constitutionally protected. It's the offenders who need to be incarcerated. The Cook County Jail study concludes that these criminals unlawfully carry and use these firearms because they fear each other more than they fear the criminal justice system. Is that not a significant problem? Is that perhaps what distinguishes Chicago from all the relatively crime-free cities in the U.S.?
The trace report data also prompt questions about the audit trail and need for registration. Illinois does require private sellers to check the validity of a buyer's firearm owner's identification card and to retain the approval number and a bill of sale for 10 years. This record retention should help law enforcement to trace the chain of custody of a firearm as it changes hands legally. If a firearm leaves the legal channel (is sold without a FOID check), then a crime has been committed. If this law were enforced, any registry would simply be a waste of resources. There are 2.1 million FOID holders in Illinois, and we are not criminals.
As for firearms lost and stolen from FFLs, the report's authors again present numbers without context: "From 2013 to 2016, over 72,000 firearms were reported lost or stolen from FFL dealers nationally."
How about a little context: That is 18,000 per year, out of 232,400 stolen annually from all sources, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, representing less than 8 percent of all firearms stolen. Dealer thefts are not a meaningful part of the whole.
There are some commonsense steps that can be taken under existing law without harming law-abiding gun owners and dealers:
Criminalize the failure to perform and document FOID validity checks for private transactions. It's the law now, but there are no penalties associated with noncompliance.
Sharply cut the number of places where concealed carry is prohibited in Illinois. Currently there are 23 such categories. Holders of concealed-carry licenses are among the lowest-crime cohorts of the adult population, and requiring them to disarm and store their firearms in unsecured automobiles simply encourages theft with no offsetting benefit. A violent criminal will not be deterred by a "No Guns" sign on the door, but a would-be gun thief will rejoice that law-abiding gun owners have locked their firearms in unsecured automobiles.
Aggressively prosecute and incarcerate those who commit gun crimes. No more probation for gun traffickers. No more pleading away unlawful use of a weapon charges. No more half sentences. Commit the crime, do the time.
Finally, here's a suggested research topic for the Chicago Crime Lab: What proportion of homicides and assaults are committed by repeat offenders? How many would have been prevented had the repeat offender served his or her entire sentence? I'll bet that number dwarfs the number of criminal homicides committed by legal possessors of firearms.