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Buckle Up, Chicago: There’s a More Just and Vibrant City Ahead

Monday, July 17, 2023

Buckle Up, Chicago: There’s a More Just and Vibrant City Ahead

Former Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot made history this year, becoming the first mayor in that city to lose a re-election bid in 40 years. Lightfoot, a progressive who swept into office in 2019 on a landslide vote, was ousted in an election where public safety – specifically, runaway crime – was the dominant issue.

“There is no question it was the first, second and third issue in the race,” said a Chicago-based Democratic Party strategist. “It was crime, crime and crime.” Chicago Police Department (CPD) statistics for early July confirm that almost every category of crime is up compared to 2022. Crime overall has increased by 39% since last year, and by a much more appalling 85% if the comparison year is 2021.

It is early days yet for new mayor Brandon Johnson – another political progressive – but indications of how he intends to address the crime epidemic are found in a “transition team report” authored by Chicago for the People, a “diverse group of nearly 400 Chicagoans” appointed by Johnson to offer recommendations on the pressing issues facing the Windy City. The result is a 223-page report titled, A Blueprint for Creating a More Just and Vibrant City for All

Besides some all-but-incomprehensible progressive verbiage (e.g., “Reimagine the role of the police supervisor from that of a manager to a culture keeper”), the section on Public Safety begins with a focus on what underlies the current safety crisis: “Acknowledging that the Government played a role and is directly responsible for the state of violence in our city is the first step.” The “City of Chicago should acknowledge and repair the historical harms from traditional policing, reimagine what policing is and how policing is done to ensure the development of community led approaches to co-creating public safety, which will result in the needs of people in communities being met.”

The specific recommendations include erasing the CPD gang database, ending the use of ShotSpotter, and adopting an “alternative response model” – a “holistic approach to public safety that does not rely on the police” and instead uses non-CPD civilian staff (social workers, mental health clinicians, community activists, and “system survivors”) to respond to “non-violent” calls.

Anyone reviewing the report will look in vain for anything that recognizes criminals themselves are “directly responsible” as a root cause of crime, or for recommendations on how the criminal justice system may be better used to end “the cycle of violence” and protect residents and businesses. While the report mentions that “‘addressing roots [sic] causes and investing in communities’ should be its own goal for the Johnson Administration in creating a concrete public safety plan,” the bulk of the public safety section covers things like police accountability and “a lack of trust between communities and law enforcement,” creating “incentives for officers who address community concerns without stops, arrests, or force,” increasing “access to restorative justice programs and community-led peace circles,” and ensuring “reparations for survivors of police violence, torture, and false confessions.” Crime victims are entitled to after-the-fact “recognition” and support: “All survivors of violence in Chicago will receive equal recognition and comprehensive support regardless of their identity, citizenship status, systems involvement, insurance coverage, and income status.”

The report touches on firearms in a few places, but without examining the benefits of lifting gun prohibitions and expanding the concealed carry law for law-abiding citizens. Generally (and consistent with its shift in focus away from the actual malefactors), the report appears to conflate “gun proliferation” with increased violent crime, identifying “gun proliferation exacerbated by the gun industry” as a factor driving “the need to chart a new path to public safety.” Under “bridges left to build,” the report recommends that, “Trace data can be used to identify gun dealers who sell a disproportionate number of crime guns, allowing law enforcement to focus heightened scrutiny towards them.” Elsewhere, “additional ideas/recommendations” include “enforce the National Firearms Act to ensure updated firearm technology and accessories like ‘switches’ and extended magazines are regulated effectively.”

Neither the “gun industry” nor federally licensed gun dealers, both of which are already tightly regulated under law, can be blamed for the multiple cases where Chicago’s felons and others commit violent crimes. A 2021 study examining the impact of the nationwide surge in firearm purchasing following the onset of the pandemic found the increase in purchasing was not associated with an increase in firearm violence, with the results suggesting “much of the rise in firearm violence during [the] study period was attributable to other factors.”

CWB Chicago, a local news source, keeps a running tally of “individuals accused of killing, shooting, or trying to kill or shoot others while on bond for a pending felony case.” The most recent entry features an incident where a Cook County prosecutor narrowly escaped injury in a drive-by shooting in which she was not the intended target. The accused gunman is a convicted felon who, at the time, was out on bail on a pending charge of unlawful possession of a machine gun. (The article notes that the accused “participates in a non-violence program.”) Convicted felons are prohibited under federal law from possessing any firearm, and possession of machine guns is separately and specifically restricted under the National Firearms Act. CWB Chicago posted another report the same day about an accused armed with a gun who threatened to kill a woman in a carjacking. At the time, he “was on bail for another armed carjacking case and on probation for a felony gun case,” with active warrants for both because he failed to appear for his court dates. How can anyone possibly “reimagine” such incidents as the responsibility of the gun industry or licensed gun dealers? 

With respect to trace data, firearm traces are conducted by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) using original dealer records to track later sales of a firearm. One of the metrics is “time-to-crime,” or the time from the last known retail sale to when the gun is recovered in a crime, with shorter time-to-crime periods being indicators of illegal gun trafficking. The ATF’s most recent trace data (2021) for Illinois shows that the average “time-to-crime” for crime guns recovered in Illinois is 5.63 years.   

The reference to the federal National Firearms Act and regulating magazines and “switches” is somewhat wide of the mark. Federal law doesn’t regulate firearm magazines, although a new Illinois law does. “Switches” are parts used to convert (legal) semiautomatic firearms into fully automatic machine guns. These modified “machine guns” are already illegal under both the NFA and state law (which punishes violations as a mandatory-minimum-sentence felony).

For all the ink the report expends on community harm, public and police accountability, and the critical theme of a “more just” city for all, surely an honest conversation about public safety requires acknowledging, if not also requiring accountability from, the perpetrators of violent crime. “Reimagining” public safety shouldn’t mean ignoring reality.

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