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Analysis: ‘Straw purchasing,’ background check law most important here

Mayor Rahm Emanuel sitting next Supt. Garry McCarthy  gets ready make remarks latest graduating class Chicago Police Department detectives

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, sitting next Supt. Garry McCarthy, gets ready to make remarks to the latest graduating class of Chicago Police Department detectives at Navy Pier on January 16, 2013. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: February 19, 2013 2:22PM



Strengthening the laws against “straw purchasing” of firearms and bolstering background checks for gun buyers might have a greater impact on Chicago crime than federally banning assault weapons, which have been banned locally for decades, according to law enforcement sources.

President Barack Obama’s wide-ranging proposals to reduce gun violence were unveiled Wednesday in response to a madman’s killings of 20 children at a Connecticut elementary school in December.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, appearing at a graduation ceremony for 32 police recruits at Navy Pier, applauded his former boss for his “efforts to bring a comprehensive approach to gun control.”

Chicago crime fighters said they liked Obama’s call for more serious punishment for straw purchasing.

That’s important for Chicago because a large number of firearms get into the hands of criminals through straw purchasing in the suburbs and other states, according to federal and local sources who weren’t authorized to speak publicly on Obama’s plan.

Currently, no federal laws specifically outlaw straw purchasing, in which people with clean backgrounds buy guns for crooks. Straw purchasers typically face probation for paperwork violations. A real threat of prison would discourage the practice, the sources said.

They also said better background checks for gun buyers might help curb crime in Chicago, which had 506 murders in 2012 — a 16 percent increase over the prior year.

Obama said he’s pushing for a law requiring all gun sellers to conduct a background check on their customers.

Chicago’s criminals often travel out of state to gun shows to buy firearms from private sellers, officials say.

Currently, private sellers don’t have to conduct background checks, yet they constitute about 40 percent of all gun sales, according to the Obama administration.

Also gaining favor among law enforcement sources was an Obama proposal to collect more information about mentally ill people deemed too dangerous to possess a gun.

Many of the mass shootings in recent years involved mentally ill people able to buy a gun.

Some states have been providing insufficient information on mentally ill people, with 17 states providing virtually no records, the Obama administration says.

In Illinois, there’s a backlog of such records that need to be entered into the federal database, State Police Director Hiram Grau said last week. Grau said his office needs more money to do the job and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin responded: “I want to see what we can do.”

Other Obama proposals would have less of an impact on crime in Chicago, sources said.

Among them is a proposed ban on “assault weapons” and high-capacity ammunition magazines. They were banned federally from 1994 to 2004, but they’ve been banned in Chicago and Cook County for the past two decades.

One key argument Obama makes for a federal ban on military-style semiautomatic rifles — or “assault weapons,” is to reduce the number of mass shootings across the country. Many of the massacres, such as the one in Connecticut, involved those types of rifles, officials say.

But a federal ban on those weapons wouldn’t have much of an impact on the number of shootings in Chicago, sources said. Only 300 of the 7,400 guns that police recovered last year were classified as “assault weapons” — and rifles accounted for a small fraction of the total murders and shootings.

Chicago’s ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines carries a penalty of 60 to 90 days in jail and a fine of $1,000 to $5,000. Emanuel is proposing boosting the penalty for those ordinance violations to 90 to 180 days in jail.

The mayor also is proposing jail sentences of up to six months for Chicagoans who fail to report guns that are lost, stolen or transferred to a new owner — an increase from the three-month maximum behind bars now.

On Wednesday, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Sheriff Tom Dart announced their support for a similar ordinance on the county level that would carry a $1,000 fine for failing to report lost, stolen or transferred guns.

“Guns are flooding and have flooded our streets for years, decades,” Dart said. “We have to do something to curb that,” Dart said.

Although the sources support such “lost, stolen or transferred” laws, they said the proposed city and county penalties still aren’t harsh enough to persuade criminals to comply.

Former Chicago Police Supt. Jody Weis, a former FBI supervisor, agrees with Preckwinkle’s proposal, but said more consistent sentencing for gun crimes is key.

“Far too many people are not going to prison for the time they should, even on those convictions on offenses with mandatory prison time. Some people are just bad people; they need to be off the streets.”

Contributing: Lisa Donovan, Fran Spielman, Natasha Korecki



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