• Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times
  • Legal guns are not Chicago’s real gun problem.

Some say the editorial page is a newspaper’s Department of Futile Gestures, as the opinions expressed therein turn a nifty phrase or two a lot more often than they turn public opinion. There’s even a word by which journalists celebrate this futility, Afghanistanism—which is two-fisted advocacy in the service of remote corners of the earth that readers haven’t the slightest interest in and the paper hasn’t the slightest influence over. Alas, Afghanistanism isn’t what it used to be. Since 2003, America has actually thought about Afghanistan.

Recent days have brought an interesting development—newspapers commenting (futilely, no doubt) on futility. The Tribune, the Sun-Times, and even the New York Times all published editorials applauding Mayor Emanuel’s proposed ordinance to legalize the gun shops City Hall doesn’t want to legalize. Alas, the federal courts say Chicago has to. The editorials gave us no reason to believe the ordinance would accomplish anything beyond getting the judiciary off our backs; the Sun-Times, most explicit about this, said it “will have absolutely no impact on Chicago’s real gun problem: the unceasing flow of illegal weapons into the city.”

The Tribune said the opposite—but unpersuasively. Emanuel’s ordinance “would make a significant difference in how easy it is for criminals to get guns,” the editorial page claimed, making so little effort to support this prediction that it can be written off as wishful thinking. The Tribune cited a study showing that “Chicago police recover seven times more guns, per capita, than the New York police.” If this is true when guns cannot legally be purchased inside the city limits, how will adding Chicago gun shops to the present assortment of thriving suppliers reduce the number of guns?

The ordinance imposes various restrictions on the new gun shops, most notably by limiting sales to one handgun per month per buyer. But traffickers who want to buy in bulk could just keep buying where they’re buying now. For instance, the same study found that nearly 20 percent of the guns confiscated by Chicago police came from four gun shops just beyond Chicago’s jurisdiction—three in the suburbs and one in Gary. Nearly 60 percent of the guns were bought in other states. Even the most restrictive Chicago ordinance won’t turn off those taps.

The New York Times editorial is the one that caught my eye as a conspicuous example of Afghanistanism. The lead editorial in the May 30 Times, it ran under the headline, “The Arms Struggle in Chicago.” Why should New York care so much about street violence in Chicago? I wondered. I don’t think New York does. The Times had points it wanted to make about the “misguided” Supreme Court and about “obstructionist politicians” responsible for Congress’ “disgraceful surrender to the gun lobby.” Chicago’s “sensible efforts” were worth mentioning because unless something is done about the courts and the gun lobby those efforts won’t do Chicago a lick of good.

In futility there is meaning.