Police chief: Time to trade the war on drugs for a war on guns

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Chicago police superintendent Garry McCarthy: its time to lock up more gun offenders.
Garry McCarthy has identified the enemy, and it is all the politicians who won't pass tougher gun laws.

"At the end of the day what we've got here in Chicago is too many guns coming in and not enough punishment going out," the police superintendent said in a speech to the City Club on Wednesday.

It might sound familiar, because McCarthy has said it before. Then again, McCarthy has said a lot of things before.

When he first appeared before the City Council three years ago, McCarthy criticized the use of guns as a political wedge issue. "My goal is to bring the gun debate back to the center," McCarthy said at the time. "I think that we have abolitionists on one side and I think that we have NRA and those kind of folks on the other side, and frankly it's too polarizing a debate, and 95 percent of the country is somewhere in between."

But his boss, Mayor Emanuel, had already announced his intention to continue the city's long-running policy of pushing for tougher firearm laws, which had offered mayors and aldermen a political shield even when it didn't stop the flow or use of guns.

McCarthy quickly showed that he was as nimble a politician as they come. Soon after his council testimony, he preached a different sermon to antigun pastor Michael Pfleger and his congregation at Saint Sabina.

And for the last two years, McCarthy and Emanuel have responded to bursts of violence in Chicago by calling for longer sentences for gun crimes.

"The gun violence in this city is the result of lax gun laws, period," McCarthy said after a bloody weekend this spring. "It couldn't be more clear what we need to do."

For McCarthy that meant pointing the finger at state lawmakers, especially members of the black caucus, who shot down a bill that would have lengthened mandatory sentences by up to a year for possessing an illegal firearm.

Some opponents noted that similar laws haven't been effective in other states. Others pointed to crowded state prisons and said they weren't willing to support more lockups.

Since then, a group of lawmakers has been discussing the possibility of relaxing the penalties for marijuana possession and other offenses in return for the stronger gun sentences. But no deal has been struck, and state rep Ken Dunkin, a leader of the black caucus, says he remains opposed to the gun mandatory minimums.

Before the movers and shakers of the City Club, McCarthy summarized that whole backstory by noting, "The African-American community is very concerned about mass incarceration."

But he also said he understood why: "The war on drugs has been a failure."

Not so long ago, that would have been a bold statement by a big-city police chief. But increasingly it's smart politics to acknowledge the unsustainable costs of locking up drug offenders, if not the racial and economic disparities in who's punished. And around here Mayor Emanuel and his police chief have trailed other elected officials in calling for reforms.

In fact, it's sometimes unclear which side of the drug issue McCarthy hasn't taken. He's described the police approach to the drug trade as a "ground war" that's meant to prevent violence—and, at the same time, he's said that the police can't solve what's fundamentally an economic issue.

"Law enforcement will never fix the narcotics problem in this country," McCarthy said Wednesday. "But we can use narcotics enforcement to reduce crime and improve the quality of life in the community."

He pointed out that drug offenders outnumber gun offenders at the county jail by more than five to one.

"If the system is designed to put people in jail for narcotics possession, then we're doing a really good job. But if the system were designed to keep people from getting shot, then those numbers would tip, wouldn't they?"

McCarthy didn't mention the police department's role in locking up drug offenders. While the number of busts has been dropping steadily during his tenure, Chicago police are still making about 80 arrests a day for drug offenses, according to police data. Nearly half are for the misdemeanor possession of marijuana.

The mayor and police chief have been criticized for paying so much attention to gun laws while saying little about the social conditions that spawn violence.

McCarthy seemed conscious of it this time. "Jobs, poverty, lack of education are certainly cornerstones of what causes crime. But it's going to take decades to fix them. We can do something about gun laws very simply with a conversation."

On this point, at least, he is quite clear.

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