Opening Remarks

The Northwestern Bluhm Legal Clinic’s “Gun Possession in Chicago, What the Headlines Don’t Tell You” Symposium on September 30, 2021, began with an introduction by the clinic’s director, Robin Walker Sterling. She told the story of a sentencing hearing in the D.C. Circuit Court, in which the young Black defendant suddenly ran out of the courtroom. When other attempts to stop him failed, his mother—a police officer in attendance at the hearing—yelled “Stop him. He has a gun.” Her experience told her that it would work, that he would be stopped immediately, even though he was not carrying a firearm. The defense attorney was “livid” with the young man’s mother, Professor Sterling said, for she felt that it put his sentencing in further jeopardy. The prosecutor said to the defense attorney, “You don’t understand because you’re not a parent.” The defender replied, “You don’t understand because you’re not Black.” Highlighting the relationships between safety fears, legal jeopardy, and race in the context of gun possession was a powerful way to open the symposium. Professor Sterling finished by reminding the audience that despite the rise in gun violence in Chicago of late, we ought not rush to enact fear-driven laws and policies that will not be effective in the long run—behavior in which Chicago’s policymakers have engaged in the past.

Panel 1: “A Peek into Possession: Why People Carry Guns”

  • While media in Chicago paints the gun violence problem as being driven by young people, most often from communities of color, carrying guns illegally with the intent to harm others, in reality the major reason youth carry guns is belief that they need a gun to be safe.
  • Chicago politicians often perceive themselves to be cornered into supporting heavy gun possession penalties out of concern for their reelection prospects, as a result of the media’s narrative that increased penalties reduce violence.
  • Chicago’s massive gun violence problem can only begin to be solved by turning to deal with its underlying causes—a dearth of mental health and social services resources in the affected communities, for example.
  • Restorative justice should become a part of the media conversation to dilute the binary, victim-vs.-perpetrator narrative currently being told.

The first panel was comprised of Emmanuel Andre, Deputy of Policy and Strategic Litigation at the Office of the Public Defender; Father David Kelly, Executive Director of the Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation; Kofi Ademola, Black Lives Matter Chicago organizer; and Robert Vargas, Associate Professor of the University of Chicago’s Department of Sociology and Deputy Dean of the Social Sciences. Moderated by Newsy’s Jamal Andress, each person on the panel was able to bring to bear a different perspective gained from speaking with people embroiled in the gun violence issue in Chicago who themselves carry guns.

The first question was posed to Kofi Ademola, asking him to speak to what “onlookers” are missing as to why people carry guns. Mr. Ademola, after stating that he himself carried a gun when he was a young man, observed that obtaining a Firearm Owners Identification (FOID) card is nearly impossible for members of communities of color and that if the reason he and so many others like him were to carry a gun was to commit murder, they would quickly do so and quickly rid themselves of the weapon, not carry it around with them. Safety concerns, he said, are what drove him to want a gun on his person, for violence and racism in the Brown and Black communities had been around for a long time and is not diminishing under the current scheme, in which illegal carriers of firearms are put in prison.

Emmanuel Andre spoke next, stating that our society has decided to “invest in incarceration” and that our vision of accountability has long been punishment. He provided quoted material from a young man named Malcolm’s voluntary statement explaining why he carried a gun without a FOID card, which described that after he and his family experienced repeated violent crime for years without any assistance following their police reports, he received a firearm from his uncle “to protect [his] family,” not because he is a criminal with bad intentions. Mr. Andre added that there are so many individuals in the South Side of Chicago who would share Malcolm’s experience, yet they go unnoticed.

Father Kelly spoke to what he was hearing from the people with whom he spoke in detention centers. He noted that those children all know at least one person who has been killed, feel that walking around unarmed feels too dangerous, and “know that adults cannot, or won’t, protect them.” Such adults, Father Kelly said, included not only the police but community organizations and their families. Carrying a gun feels like that young person’s only option, said Father Kelly. He last added that today, the violence amongst young people is driven most by underlying trauma and personal conflicts, even those taking place over social media, and that the violence will not lessen until we deal with those underlying causes.

Professor Vargas’s opening remarks pertained to the relationship between the violence problems in Chicago and Chicago’s politics. He noted that we speak of criminal penalties in terms of the narrative of providing justice for victims, but that that points to a motivation beyond intervention—penalties as political currency. In other words, in the absence of effective policy, the organizations and forces at work in this area force the traumatic experiences to fit into reelection campaign narratives, such that even the most liberal candidate needs to worry about opposition claiming that they are too soft on crime.

The remaining questions were posed to anyone on the panel who wished to answer. In terms of the impact of Chicago’s media, the panel stated that the press is currently not at all unbiased or objective but is used as an opportunity for propaganda. Each time, it is the police’s perspective that is reported, and no information is shared about a defendant’s story other than they broke the law. A partial remedy to this problem would be to instill restorative justice into the conversation and provide means of help, contacts, or resources to those who wish to work to further that cause. Another would be providing a more holistic story of these individuals to achieve a less binary narrative. The group collectively observed that the police presence rarely accomplishes what it intends, or even when it does accomplish a decrease in violence, the punitive intent behind it ensures that violence will persevere because the underlying cause remains unaddressed. Some of the panelists opined on potential benefits of community-based police, though these officers must not simply exhibit shows of force.

Finally, when considering solutions more broadly, the panel seemed to agree that at base, what would lead to improvement would be investing in different resources other than police force. Investing in community-building programs, for instance, would foster relationships and give young people an opportunity to speak in groups about their desire to carry guns and deal with those root causes. Increased access to mental healthcare and social services are also necessary “before we have a prayer of seeing a difference in gun violence,” said Mr. Ademola. Professor Vargas concluded that neoliberal thinking often results in focus on the individual—the individual perpetrator, victim, activist, etc., but that we will not make progress until it is spoken about on the community and institutional level.

Panel 2: “From Bad to Worse: Chicago’s Response to Gun Possession”

  • Gun possession arrests have massively increased in recent years without commensurate improvement in the levels of gun violence.
  • In Illinois, all gun-possession-related charges now result in felony charges, are not expungable, carry long mandatory sentences, and are painted as violent offenses. Most other states do not engage in these kinds of practices, and in almost every other state, people are penalized less harshly.
  • The process by which gun possession arrests take place is so discretionary on the part of the police, which leads to selective enforcement and racial profiling.

The second panel included Jasmin Aramburu, Bluhm Legal Clinic Children and Family Justice Center Research Associate; Sheila Bedi, Bluhm Legal Clinic Professor and Director of the Community Justice and Civil Rights Clinic; Stephanie Kollmann, Bluhm Legal Clinic Children and Family Justice Center Policy Director; and Sharone Mitchell, Jr., Cook County Public Defender. Maya Dukmasova from Injustice Watch served as the moderator.

Ms. Aramburu began by sharing extensive research findings on Chicago’s efforts to resolve the gun violence problem. In general, said Ms. Aramburu, gun possession arrests have massively increased in recent years without commensurate improvement in the levels of gun violence. Specifically, the numbers of gun arrests of non-violent individuals without prior offenses or convictions via street stops has drastically increased. Further findings include:

  • Gun seizures in 2021 show an increase by 19% compared to a similar time period in 2020.
  • According to Illinois Traffic Stop data, guns are being recovered disproportionately in communities of color (mirroring the same disparity in home and person searches)
  • Class 4 (lowest level) firearm possession felony convictions in Illinois occur 76% of the time in Cook County, 62% of those in Chicago
  • About one-third of the arrests statewide flow from 11 neighborhoods in Chicago, showing how localized police activity is
  • Of the convictions covered in the research, 74% were of Black men

Ms. Aramburu concluded by observing that the increased imprisonment for firearm possession does not reduce the likelihood of re-arrest—about 90% of those released pre-trial for weapons offenses were not re-arrested within three years after serving their sentence.

Sharone Mitchell, Jr. stated that while there is no doubt that there is a harm and violence problem in those eleven Chicago communities, in reality, the Chicago police officers are performing shakedowns in a racist manner. Professor Sheila Bedi added that the police have a long history of contributing to this problem, referencing the torture scandal with the Chicago Police Department (CPD) and the Trial of the Chicago Seven at the time of the Vietnam War as examples. The CPD has created the false confession capital of the world, not to mention widespread, ordinary abuses of police power like unlawful stop-and-frisks, said Professor Bedi. When the only institution in place to deal with harm produces so much harm of its own, said Professor Bedi, naturally young people feel compelled to seek out their own forms of justice and protection.

Next, Stephanie Kollmann spoke to factors that further distinguish Illinois from other jurisdictions. She stated that in Illinois, all gun-possession-related charges now result in felony charges, are not expungable, carry long mandatory sentences, and are made to sound like violent offenses. As an example, she noted that if someone possesses a gun, lawfully or not, and commits an unrelated felony, that person can be charged with “armed violence.” Such a charge could apply to someone who lawfully carries a gun and is found in possession of a personal use amount of cocaine. Most other states in America do not engage in these kinds of practices, said Ms. Kollmann, and in almost every other state, people are penalized in less harsh ways for the same activities.

Defender Mitchell described the harm that gun suppression policing and prosecution do even when a person is found not guilty, sharing the story of a client who was found not guilty but who lost his job and his home before trial as a result of the violent-sounding “unlawful use of a weapon” (possession) charge. Mitchell posited that his South Side community doesn’t have the vitality that it should due to the impact of this system, which is much more focused on seeming tough on crime than actually being effective at stopping harm. He said that, for the most part, the current approach ruins communities, ruins people’s lives, and doesn’t keep residents safer.

On the whole, the panel seemed to be in agreement that the efforts by the city of Chicago to diminish gun violence have been largely unsuccessful and that feelings of increased safety are falsely acquired, if anyone does indeed feel safer in the community. Confiscating thousands of guns every year is largely performative; announcing that ten thousand guns are confiscated in a year in Chicago barely scratches the surface when as many as 50,000 guns may be sold to Illinois residents in one month. Law enforcement focuses on gun possession, said Ms. Kollmann, because it is an easy investigation to perform as opposed to carrying out a violence case prosecution. In other words, the city’s approach to harm reduction, including from CPD, has been based on soundbites and headlines, not real action, said Professor Bedi. Every other major city in America reduced funding to the police in 2020, but not Chicago—an intentional political choice that ignores what truly would help keep communities safe, said Professor Bedi. Defender Mitchell added that arrests for gun possession are the driver of mass incarceration—the new War on Drugs: while all other prison admissions fell in Illinois from 2014-2019 by 38%, prison admissions for gun possession increased by 27% in the same period.

This is particularly important to note, said the panel, again because the process by which these arrests take place is so discretionary on the part of the police. A police officer need only “perceive” someone as a gang member in order to admit that person to a gang database that can cause a FOID card denial for people who do not have a felony conviction. Ms. Kollmann noted that identifying with a gang is at its essence a protected First Amendment activity—under freedom of association—yet in Illinois, possessing a gun while affiliated with a gang attaches a higher set of criminal penalties.

Finally, Ms. Kollmann highlighted that back in 1999, then-Representative Arthur Turner (Sr.) of the Illinois House of Representatives noted in legislative discussions around unlawful-use-of-a-weapon penalty increases that gun arrests were subject to selective enforcement and racial profiling. Rep. Turner noted that ninety percent of those arrested were Black and Brown. Representative Monique Davis described how gun possession sentences that singled out one kind of criminal organization—gangs—while ignoring others seemed disparate and inappropriate. Both representatives were met with the response from other legislators that police bias and racial disproportionality would be addressed in the near future, if the representatives would support the current legislation at the time. Defender Mitchell concluded the session by casting this history into sharp relief by sharing that, just last year, Rep. Turner was himself racially profiled during a traffic stop by Chicago Police and taken into custody due to a warrant for a man 36 years younger and several inches taller than him – released only when a lieutenant recognized him as a former politician. Needless to say, the issues he raised in 1999 have not been resolved.

Panel 3: “Progress toward Peace: Sustainable Approaches to Reduce Gun Violence”

  • The term “gun violence” is often used as a blanket term to discuss larger issues of racism and equity. Gun violence is itself a symptom, and any solution should focus on the underlying public health problems.
  • Solutions that successfully decrease gun violence include: community presence and support, employment, housing, access to medical and mental health care, and community investment.
  • The current approach of law enforcement to address gun violence is ineffective and largely removed from community efforts.
The third panel featured Tamar Manasseh, Mothers Against Senseless Killings (MASK) Founder and President; Eddie Bocanegra, Heartland Alliance READI Chicago’s Senior Director; and Dr. David Ansell, Senior Vice President for Community Health Equity and Associate Provost for Community Affairs, Rush University and Rush University Medical Center. Moderated by Lakeidra Chavis, a reporter with The Marshall Project who covers criminal justice across the country, the panel focused on solutions to gun violence in Chicago.

The panelists began by addressing how the term “gun violence” can be used to discuss a wide variety of public health issues. Mr. Bocanegra contended that gun violence is more of a condition than an issue, and it stems from inequity and racism. When compared to the approach on COVID, we must ask ourselves: Why is it that we haven’ been able to come together to really address the issue of gun violence? Do we see it as a public health issue? Dr. Ansell argued that the framing of our work should start with an understanding of the root causes of the biases in an intersectional way. He noted that there has been extraction of capital from communities of color in Chicago, suggesting that one approach to solving violence is to reinvest in these communities. Ms. Manasseh then compared a healthy community – without gun violence – to a cake. To make a cake, you need different ingredients. If you remove one of those ingredients, you don’t necessarily have a cake. If, for instance, you are in a food desert with access to drugs and guns, the likelihood for violence spikes.

Following the opening question, the panelists explained how their organizations work to combat gun violence. Ms. Manasseh described the mission of MASK as one of neighborhood presence. A group of mothers show up in an area known for gun violence in an effort to prevent future incidents. The theory behind this model is if people are being watched, they tend to behave differently. The group has seen great success, with zero incidence of violence in the presence of MASK. She also makes it clear that the goal of this group is not surveillance, but rather letting people know you are there and that you see them. Mr. Bocanegra’s work at READI creates a viable pathway for high risk individuals who have been involved in either victimization or perpetration. The organization was birthed out of a 2016 spike in violence in which Chicago saw 750 homicides and 4,000 shootings. READI partnered with the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab to evaluate some of the best practices to reduce gun violence, like employment, cognitive behavioral therapy, housing, and substance abuse treatment. Dr. Ansell, who works at Rush, partners with the community on the things that they need systematically over the long term to make a difference.

Finally, the panelists debated creating change with the structures currently in place, specifically looking at the role of law enforcement in decreasing gun violence. Ms. Manasseh argued that law enforcement does little to address gun violence and often escalates tensions. In her experience, she has found it more beneficial to work around police officers and opt for community interventions in volatile situations. Mr. Bocanegra emphasized the need for law enforcement to work with community organizations to decrease gun violence. If the officers know who is more likely to get shot, they could refer them to organizations like READI. However, he also spoke about the ways in which law enforcement institutions protect each other and thus prevent accountability; addressing such systemic challenges is essential to ensure public safety. Dr. Ansell concluded by implying that because every system is designed to acquire a certain set of results, the existing public safety system should be redesigned to take a different approach and address gun violence as a public health crisis.

Closing Remarks

Julie Biehl, Clinical Professor of Law, Assistant Dean of the Bluhm Legal Clinic and Director of the Children and Family Justice Center, delivered closing remarks:

“Enough is enough. … If you heard what they said today, enough of the historical and communal abandonment of certain communities. Enough of the structural racism that underlies the criminal legal system. Enough of our over reliance on police and incarceration as a solution based on the false notion that it keeps us safe. Enough of calling for balanced policy solutions when we allocate billions of dollars to police and a paltry amount to social services. Enough of too many guns and too little investment and reliance on the strength of our communities. Enough of blaming the youth who carry guns because they are scared, because they are traumatized, because they have no adults who are able to protect them. If you agree with me, that enough is enough and now is the time…I invite you all to join the Illinois Blueprint for Peace.”