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City's gun law has little firepower

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Marty Zamora will be the first to tell you he's a gun guy—he owns seven handguns and four rifles. He likes to shoot at a suburban range for sport, but he says that's not the main reason he has them.

"Everybody on my block has been robbed but me," says Zamora, a longtime resident of Pilsen who works for the city's Department of Streets and Sanitation. "The gangbangers, they know I've got guns, and I don't get messed with."

Zamora says he's carefully complied with state regulations, which require him to register for a Firearm Owner's Identification Card and to undergo background checks each time he buys a gun. He's taken training classes, and so have his wife and son. But none of Zamora's firearms are registered with the Chicago Police Department, though they're supposed to be under the city's gun law. He says he doesn't trust the city's motives.

"Why should I go register with the city and later have a guy knock at my door saying, 'Hey, can we see your gun?'"

The registration requirement was the central part of a strict gun law hastily passed by the City Council at the behest of then-Mayor Richard Daley last July, just four days after the U.S. Supreme Court effectively knocked down Chicago's 28-year-old handgun ban. Politically, at least, the city's gun-control regulations have been a central part of its public safety policy, and Daley stressed that it was essential to collect data on where gun owners live so that first responders know when they're approaching a location where weapons are present.

But nearly a year later, only a fraction of city gun owners have signed up, and critics say the law is more about politics than sound policy.

Despite potential penalties of $5,000 in fines or 90 days in jail, the city's law appears to have little sway over those who've registered with the state to own or possess a firearm. Of the 116,173 Chicagoans who have FOID cards, only 2.7 percent have registered a gun with the city.

In fairness, not everyone with a FOID card actually owns a gun, and many Chicago gun-owners are exempt from city registration, including cops, security guards, correctional officers, active duty military, and rifle-owners who registered before the city law went into effect. City officials could not say how many gun-owners are exempt.

There are also thousands of additional guns in the city whose owners haven't followed any sort of legal process—last year, for example, Chicago police seized an average of more than 20 illegal firearms a day.

Nor is the law functioning to screen out anyone prohibited from owning weapons—including people convicted of a violent crime, DUI, or gun offense—because only qualified applicants bother to go through the process. Through mid-May just 68 gun permit applications, or 2 percent, were not approved.

Police officials continue to say the law has helped keep cops safe. "When officers are dispatched to the residence of a gun registrant, notification is given of this fact so that officers may prepare to enter this location with an increased likelihood of weapons," a spokeswoman said in a written statement issued in response to questions. "The presence of a weapon is going to escalate the risk of an officer charged with restoring peace to a situation, so this information is vital."

But other cops I've spoken to dismiss the notion that the law aids their day-to-day work. "Since the registration began, it has changed absolutely nothing in the way we police," says one veteran officer who doesn't want to be named for fear of a run-in with higher-ups. He says cops don't usually access the registration data—he has never seen it himself—but doubted it would make a huge difference if they did. "Police officers are trained to assume there's a gun there, whether it's a traffic stop or a domestic call."

What's more, Chicago's gun law is rarely used to lock up offenders because state and federal statues carry much heavier penalties. Just 79 people a year, on average, have been convicted of violating city gun ordinances since 1982, Dan Mihalopoulos and I reported last year in a story for the Chicago News Cooperative. "It's just an extra ticket you can hit them with," says the cop. "But the bad guys are not getting their guns legitimately and they're never going to."

Andrew Papachristos, a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts who studies gangs and gun crimes in Chicago, argues that gun laws should focus on the people perpetuating violence and the illegal ways they're getting weapons. "We're not talking about your father's guns—we're talking about guns used in crimes," he says. "It's the felons in possession of guns—that's really where the efforts should be."

The new law was supposed to help on that front as well. It requires that anyone convicted of a city, state, or federal gun law offense report it to the police department along with contact information, a photograph, and a copy of their driver's license. Offenders who don't comply can be jailed up to six months. In turn, the police department is directed to "create and maintain" a registry of the offenders.

But so far none of this has been done, according to 14th Ward alderman Ed Burke, a former cop who advocated for the provision last year. "We envisioned that, just like sex offenders have to register, that gun offenders should have to register, and we'd create a different violation if they didn't," Burke told newly installed police superintendent Garry McCarthy during a City Council hearing last week. "It probably wouldn't surprise you that, like so many bureaucracies, this has yet to be implemented."

McCarthy vowed to make it happen. "I'm a big believer in it," he said.

Still, the new administration of Mayor Rahm Emanuel has sent mixed messages about its gun control policies. As mayor, Daley was an unbending supporter of gun control. He regularly responded to news of violent flare-ups by calling for tougher gun laws at the state and federal levels, and he answered reporters' questions about violence with rants about guns, gun manufacturers, the NRA, and Supreme Court justices who didn't see things his way.

In the list of goals Emanuel released shortly before taking office, he promised to "strictly" enforce the city's gun law. But the mayor's press office avoided answering questions about the gun law for this story, instead issuing a statement: "The Mayor is committed to carrying the fight against illegal guns to Washington DC and Springfield until every illegal gun is off Chicago's streets."

McCarthy, however, has indicated he doesn't share Daley's gun control zeal. "I think that we have abolitionists on one side and NRA and those kind of folks on the other side, and frankly it's too polarizing a debate," McCarthy told aldermen. "I think that we can protect the Second Amendment rights of people to bear firearms while at the same time preventing the illegal flow of firearms into our urban centers."

McCarthy praised the CPD's "incredible job" getting guns out of criminals' hands but added, "That's not good enough. The question is, what do we do after that?"

The police chief didn't get into specifics, and aldermen didn't ask him for any. But most are unwilling to talk about changing the existing law.

"Hopefully people will do the right thing and do the registrations like they're supposed to," says Ninth Ward alderman Anthony Beale, who helped shepherd the law through the council last year. "But if they're not, we need to promote it." 

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