Illinois and Chicago maintain some stiff gun laws, but recently released federal statistics suggest a lot of guns seized last year by police in Illinois came from a source beyond the reach of those laws: Indiana.
The relationship seems intuitive, said Chicago-based Special Agent Thomas Ahern of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The states share a border, and Chicago contains no gun stores.
Ahern said it would be hard to deny the connection between what the ATF calls "source states" and weaker gun laws. Any gun that ends up pointed at a gas station clerk or tucked into a felon's pants could once be found on a store shelf, Ahern noted.
"All guns throughout the United States start out legal. Somewhere down the road, they become illegal," Ahern said.
The stats in question relate to guns traced to a source state by the ATF in 2008. The ATF traces guns at the request of local police agencies who recover the guns, but not all the guns were used in crimes and not all guns used in crimes are traced.
The stats show Indiana was, by far, the leading out-of-state supplier of guns recovered by police in Illinois in 2008, then traced by the ATF to a "source state," the last state in which the gun was legally sold. While Illinois was its own biggest source state, with 3,300 guns recovered in Illinois and traced to in-state sources in 2008, Indiana supplied 857 such guns to Illinois in 2008. Mississippi was the closest competitor, contributing 369 guns.
The import-export relationship is not balanced, according to the data. Illinois sources supplied 79 of the guns recovered and traced in Indiana in 2008. Kentucky and Ohio were both bigger suppliers to Indiana, according to the data.
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence claimed in a news release that the data prove states with weaker gun laws fuel the illegal gun market, supplying "crime guns" to states with tougher laws. A Brady Campaign analysis ranked Indiana as one of the top five source states, and the gun control advocacy group considers Indiana's gun laws too lax.
Hammond-based U.S. Attorney David Capp, one of the region's most important gun enforcement officials, deferred comment on the Illinois-Indiana relationship to ATF agents because his assistant U.S. attorneys are prosecuting many federal gun cases.
It should not surprise anyone to learn there is no consensus on the issue between political parties.
State Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, would like to tighten Indiana's gun laws. But Brown isn't optimistic that his pro-gun control views will spread in a state Legislature that also represents Indiana's vast rural expanses. Brown said rural pro-gun rights legislators "cannot appreciate the carnage that goes on in urban settings."
"I don't know if we can ever get out from under the power of the NRA," Brown said.
State Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, thinks Indiana's gun laws are "just fine." He noted that Chicago's gun ban has failed, profoundly, to prevent gun violence.
"People shoot people. Guns don't shoot people," Soliday said.
Dave Workman doesn't see the connection between source states and allegedly weak gun laws. He is a gun rights advocate and journalist who works for the Second Amendment Foundation, one of the groups that have challenged Chicago's handgun ban, a case the U.S. Supreme Court will hear next year. He suspects many guns pass through one or more illegal channels after they are legally bought and owned. People steal guns, and guns are bought illegally for criminals by clean buyers, Workman noted. He said groups such as the Brady Campaign want to manipulate data to spread "draconian" gun laws.
"We're not talking about legally licensed armed private citizens running around sticking up gas stations or baristas," Workman said.
"[Legislators] want to subordinate a fundamental civil right down to the realm of being a very highly regulated privilege."
There is curious common ground between Workman's view and the position of Dr. Gary Slutkin, the founder of CeaseFire Chicago, the oft-replicated anti-violence group. He doesn't see the guns in Chicago as the key problem. The problem, Slutkin believes, is the learned behavior of using violence to arbitrate problems. If the guns don't come from Indiana, they will flow from Wisconsin or Michigan, Slutkin said. It's not a supply issue, but a demand problem, Slutkin said.
Urban violence is a "humanitarian crisis," and gun control has not stopped the killing, Slutkin said. Only behavioral solutions such as those offered by CeaseFire -- including using former gang members as conflict mediators who build relationship with troubled youth -- will succeed, he said.
"We need to shift our thinking to what is actually working," he said.