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Why does Chicago have so many illegal guns?

Last year, Chicago police seized more guns than New York and Los Angeles combined; where did they come from?

CHICAGO – In a makeshift memorial on the city's South Side, Diane Latiker keeps bricks with the names of every child and young adult killed in Chicago's violence. Of the hundreds of bricks, she estimates that 98 percent or more of the victims were killed by gunfire. Getting a gun in this neighborhood, she said, is as easy as buying a pack of gum.

“If you want a gun, you can just go get a gun,” she said. “You got the money? You can get a gun.”

Last year, police in Chicago took around 7,000 illegal guns off the streets – more than New York and Los Angeles combined. And Latiker built the memorial to shock the city over how many kids were being shot to death.

Some of the names of victims of gun violence in Chicago.
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“They were lives. They were somebody’s family. They were somebody’s child,” she said. “And it sounds cliché, everybody says that. But they were. There are stories behind each one of these stones.”

Miyoshia Bailey is one of those stories. Her son, Cortez “Poppy” Bailey, was killed last year, shot multiple times in a neighborhood known for gang activity.

“I just wish that it would stop. God, I wish it would stop,” Bailey said, dabbing her eyes. “…You can’t really even start a healing process at all because the next day, it’s somebody else’s child.”

For Bailey, the question isn't how to get the guns off the streets.

"Bringing guns in is the issue with me," she said. "Where are they all coming from?" 

The paperless trail

Tracing an illegal gun is hard, because once it is sold on the private market in what’s called a straw purchase, the gun often no longer has a paper trail.

“[The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives] is only generally able to trace that firearm back to the first retail purchase,” said John Biemeret, a supervisor at the ATF’s new federal Gun Intelligence Center in Chicago. “Further transactions that take place, oftentimes, there is no record of it.”

But busts can help expose a gun's travels. David “Big Dave” Lewisbey was a college student out to score cash. Indiana has no restrictions on state residents buying weapons from private dealers – as long as they don't do it to earn a living., But from 2008 to 2012, Lewisbey scoured the state for gun shows, flashed an Indiana ID, filled duffel bags with dozens of guns and resold them on the streets of Chicago, where they made their way to the city's most violent street gangs. In March, a federal judge sentenced him to almost 17 years in prison. 

David "Big Dave" Lewisbey made bringing guns from Indiana to Chicago a common practice.

Lewisbey's gunrunning was part of a much larger pipeline. According to John Durastanti, who heads the gun trafficking task force in Chicago for the ATF, of the guns used in Chicago gang shootings, a higher percentage come from Indiana than anywhere else.

We wanted to see just how easy it was to buy a gun for a resident of Chicago. At the fairgrounds in Lafayette, thousands of guns, from AK-47 semi-automatic rifles to .357 Magnum revolvers, were on display. I posed as a straw purchaser from the Hoosier State, looking to buy a gun for our correspondent, Chris Bury. We came with a hidden camera in tow.

We spoke first with a federally licensed firearms dealer. He correctly said that Bury, since he wasn't a resident of Indiana, needed a firearm owner identification card. But then Bury spoke with a private collector selling what he said was his personal collection of new Glocks and other handguns. The reception was much warmer. 

“There’s no paperwork. It’s a private purchase,” the private collector told us.

In the gun show parking lot, we met another private collector who told Bury how to make an illegal straw purchase through me.

“If he’s from Indiana, just have him buy it and write out a bill of sale that you bought it off of him,” the parking lot dealer said. “And that’s all you got to do.”

The biography of a gun

The ATF is starting to get better data on the guns it seizes. An analyst at the city's new Gun Intelligence Center created a crime map using Chicago Police Department data on firearm recoveries within the West Side's 11th police district – one of the city's most violent districts. Looking where guns were recovered and whether they’ve been linked to other crimes, agents map a gun’s forensic and social connections. The result is a biography of the gun, tracing how it traveled from manufacturer to murder scene. For instance, the map can detail how a suspect in a homicide was also the possessor of four different firearms, three of which came from Indiana. 

An example of the data collected by the ATF's Gun Intelligence Center that traces how guns can go from manufacturers to murder scenes.
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Since the Gun Intelligence Center opened in May, the ATF said its work has led to more than 170 referrals for federal prosecution. Agents at the center are refining the techniques, including the use of government informants. That's how they nailed Lewisbey.

But while the ATF has become more sophisticated in cracking down on the guns on the streets, it's much harder to stop them at the source. Congress has refused to regulate gun shows, and they will likely to continue to flood the streets of Chicago with guns, turning more children into names on bricks.

Last year, after placing 374 bricks, Latiker ran out of room. Now, she plans to expand her memorial to mark the names of another 470 young people killed in the city – nearly all by guns – since she began keeping count.

“The laws have to be changed,” she said. “No question about it.”

Many of those laws are fiercely defended by those who cite their constitutional right to bear arms. When she hears that argument, Latiker always has the same thought.

“They don’t live where I live. They just don’t,” Latiker said. “I believe in your right, the pursuit of happiness. I believe in all that. But this is not happiness.”

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