Illinois lawmakers advanced legislation this week that would ban military-caliberstyle guns as well as magazines that hold more than ten rounds of ammunition. The moves came in response to the Newtown massacre—and to the end of another bloody year in the streets of Chicago.

They also highlighted the fact that Illinois is the center of our nation’s confusing and contradictory approach to guns.


1. Chicago shows that tough laws and rhetoric alone won’t stop gun violence.

Chicago already has the most restrictive firearm laws in the country: handgun owners must undergo three background checks, take a training class, practice shooting at a range, and register with the police department.

In addition to Chicago’s laws, the state has a network of gun regulations. Anyone owning or possessing a firearm must complete a background check and apply for a state-issued firearm owner’s identification (FOID) card. Waiting periods are required to purchase handguns and rifles. Gang members or felons caught with weapons face severe penalties.

Illinois was also the last state to prohibit carrying guns, though a federal appeals court overturned the law last month.

Despite all of this, the city finished 2012 with 506 homicides. It’s the highest mark among major cities—by far.

Even more revealing is the total number of shootings, since the vast majority of slayings involve guns. All told, 2,460 people were shot in Chicago last year—more than 47 a week. New York City, which has three times the population, averaged 31 shootings a week through late December. In Los Angeles, with about one and a half times as many people as Chicago, there were about 23 a week.

2. Gun rights advocates decry the restrictions at the city and state level, arguing that they merely make it difficult for law-abiding citizens to protect themselves. But available data suggest that the laws haven’t stopped people from acquiring guns—legally or illegally.

In fact, demand for firearms appears to be growing. Earlier this week the FBI announced that in December it received a record number of requests for background checks of people interested in buying guns: nearly 2.8 million, up almost threefold from a decade earlier.

The trend is no different in Illinois. State police also conducted background checks for a record number of firearm sales in December—50,116. The previous mark was 40,506, set a month earlier.

As of late December, about 1.4 million residents had a valid FOID card, according to the state police. The number has grown 12 percent in the last two years.

3. The FOID card registration process is a modest gun control measure. But a state audit last year found that it’s riddled with problems, raising questions about how even more restrictive laws can be enforced.

For starters, state police struggle to cope with the volume of FOID card applications. Police had little time to confirm that applicants were providing valid information, and they didn’t prosecute those caught lying. Revoked cards were never recovered, raising the possibility that prohibited gun owners were still able to buy ammunition.

Most alarming, the police received little information from county court systems or human services officials that would allow them to disqualify applicants deemed mentally “defective” or “disabled.”

Since then, the state police have been able to improve training and information networks, says spokeswoman Monique Bond. But she says they continue to struggle with the workload. “We still need more resources.”

4. Of course, all of this involves people who try to comply with the law.

Countless others don’t bother. Officials say Chicago police recovered 7,444 illegal weapons in 2012, an average of more than 20 a day.

Meanwhile, researchers have determined that most of the guns used in crimes in Chicago were originally acquired from legal dealers in Illinois, then resold illegally.

“The ongoing violence happening in the inner cities in this country is fueled by gun violence because of gun laws that facilitate [it],” police Superintendent Garry McCarthy told Fox Chicago this week. Guns are being “transferred illegally and ending up in criminals’ hands.”

5. Despite the proliferation of guns, urban violence is perpetrated by a small fraction of the population—people with a history of serious crime.

“We’re not talking about your father’s guns,” Harvard sociologist Andrew Papachristos told me last year. “It’s the felons in possession of guns—that’s really where the efforts should be.”

In the short term, he argues, that means policing strategies should focus on criminal networks.

In the long term, though, reducing bloodshed “entails improving the social, economic, and educational opportunities in our most disadvantaged neighborhoods. If we want to break cycles of violence, we need to address the underlying and enduring causes.”

That’s not a quick fix.