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Examining the NYTs Chicago gun story
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Several weeks ago, we ran a column by Chicago-based Clarence Page about the “virus” of Chicago violence in relation to the national gun control debate. He noted that there were 506 murders in Chicago in 2012 compared to only 418 in New York City. He didn’t mention how many were committed by using a gun or other firearm.

I don’t know if his column was an inspiration to Monica Davey of the New York Times, but the headline on her Jan. 29 article, “Strict Gun Laws in Chicago Can’t Stem Fatal Shots” belies what she discovered might be happening in the nation’s third-largest city.

The gut reaction -- and certainly the reaction by gun rights advocates -- is that strict gun laws don’t curb violence. They “only restrict the law-abiding citizens and they’ve essentially made the citizens prey,” Illinois State Rifle Association Executive Director Richard A. Pearson said in the article.

Does his assessment naturally follow the information given in the article? I’m inclined to say no only because Davey never presents anything that made me think Chicago residents were chafing to go out and buy guns nor that the “flood of gun violence,” as she wrote, is a direct result of stricter gun laws. Things are always more complicated than that.

I first learned of the NYT article from, of all places, io9.com, a website I follow regularly that covers science fiction and fantasy and science fact. The site chose to highlight Davey’s article because of a data map of the U.S. using red circles to show where about 50,000 confiscated guns used in crimes or other unpermitted uses between 2001 and 2012 came from. It was, io9.com said, “a handy resource” for communicating the statistics. In other words, a good use of science.

That map clearly showed that at least half of the confiscated firearms came from with a several hundred-mile radius of Chicago, covering parts of the rest of Illinois; Indiana; and parts of Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri and Ohio. Smaller circles -- some so small as to look like dots -- showed that at least one gun, if not many, came from every other state in the nation.

Well, we are a nation of states. There are federal gun laws but, otherwise, each state -- indeed individual municipalities and counties -- can have its own laws as well.

The whole point of the NYT article comes right in the first sentence: “Not a single gun shop can be found in this city because they are outlawed.” Later, Davey writes that Chicago is “a city with no civilian gun ranges and bans on both assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.” Chicago’s gun ordinances are the most comprehensive and -- to some -- the strictest in the nation.

So, how in the world did Chicago law enforcement seize 7,400 guns used in crimes or because of unpermitted uses in 2012 alone? If you take what Davey has written as correct, it’s because people who use guns in crimes or for other unpermitted reasons are getting the guns from outside the city limits of Chicago.

Chicago lies within Cook County. According to Davey, Cook County does not have the same restrictions as the city of Chicago. She reports that “More than a quarter of the firearms seized on the streets here by the Chicago Police Department over the past five years were bought just outside city limits in Cook County suburbs, according to an analysis by the University of Chicago Crime Lab.” Since 2008, she reported, more than 1,300 of confiscated guns came from one shop located just a few miles outside the city’s limits.

Another piece of Davey’s analysis shown through that data map is that, as expected, the most confiscated guns from another state came from neighboring Indiana. What wasn’t expected is that the second state on that list was Mississippi. The theory, proffered in the article by University of Washington professor James N. Gregory, is tied to family migration patterns in the 1940s and 1970s. “In 1970, there were more people from Mississippi living in Illinois that in all other Southern states,” NYT map makers Kevin Quealy and Tim Wallace wrote. “Family ties may help explain why many guns bought in Mississippi ended up in Chicago.”

(And, yes, since I’m sure you’d ask, there are some dots showing guns from South Carolina made their way to Chicago, but not very many. I can’t tell just by looking if any came from Kershaw County.)

In addition to the data, Davey reported that while gun shops, assault weapons and high-capacity magazines are banned, Illinois’ penalties for breaking the law aren’t as severe as for similar restrictions in other states. For example, illegal “gun possession for offenders without felonies is one year in prison,” Davey wrote. In many cases, that means they really serve only about six months, according to the state’s attorney.

Remember that 7,400 figure? According to Davey, a more than equal 7,640 people currently hold firearms permits in Chicago, despite required firearms training; rigorous background checks; a state-mandated firearm owner’s ID card; and a requirement to report weapons as lost, stolen or sold.

So, what is Chicago’s story? Is it that Chicago’s drowning in gun violence because the rest of Illinois and the nation isn’t tough enough? Is it because Chicago’s own penalties aren’t tough enough, too? Some people think so, calling for state- or even nation-wide laws.

I don’t know if that’s the right course. What I do know is that the NYT article raises some very, very important questions. I hope you’ll think about them.