In 2014, Chicago saw homicides hit a historic low at 426.
The city has exceeded that number every year since and is on pace to again this calendar year by more than 80%, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois John Lausch testified Monday at special a U.S. Senate judiciary hearing on gun violence held in Chicago.
Illinois’ senior U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, who chairs the committee, said he’s concerned that prosecutors don’t go after straw purchasers – those who buy guns on behalf of someone legally banned from owning a gun – because the penalties are too low to make it worth their while.
Lausch said there are challenges to prosecuting straw purchasers, given that the crime is essentially making a false statement on a form.
“We view straw purchasing as a serious crime,” he said.
When his agents are able to prosecute, they do. He repeatedly stressed the importance of prosecuting criminals, noting the impact of a November case in which 13 Chicago gang faction members were charged with 19 counts of murder and attempted murder.
“We are already hearing feedback from our local law enforcement partners, that it is having a positive impact in the community. Members of the community see that we are doing something to hold people accountable for murders, and also it is having a deterrent effect of people not wanting to be the next person to get charged federally,” Lausch said.
Chicago is home base for one of five national “strike forces” on gun trafficking.
When pressed, Lausch shared that his office did not receive additional money or agents for that effort.
He downplayed that as an issue, saying he constantly has to shift resources.
But Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown told senators he wants more law enforcement sent Chicago's way.
“Additional fully-funded FBI, DEA and Homeland Security investigations task force officers would be invaluable. To the levels that LAPD and NYPD have. Chicago falls far short for their TFOs in those federal task forces. We need federal help on the ground for large-scale efforts to take down the criminal networks driving violence,” Brown said.
As for what's causing the surge in Chicago and other cities, The Heritage Foundation's Amy Swearer said blame falls on the shoulders of progressive prosecutors.
At Durbin's request, she didn't get into details about specific policies of Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx. Durbin said that would be inappropriate as Foxx was not invited to the hearing.
“It’s because the police departments across this nation had abruptly changed the ways in which they deploy their resources, in which they responded to service calls and interacted with civilians. It’s because certain prosecutors can’t be bothered to pursue criminal charges,” Swearer said.
She also indicated the crime surge that began in 2020 is unrelated to illegal gun purchases, and is linked to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s because millions of Americans suddenly lost their livelihoods – had their livelihoods ripped out from under them, had their vital social networks disrupted, had all manner of serious stressors inflicted on them for an extended period of time,” Swearer said.
The University of Chicago Crime Lab's Roseanna Ander said the violence problem is specific to guns, and that contrary to popular belief, most murders are not planned in advance.
“A huge share of murders in the United States are not motivated by money or robberies or wars between gangs or crews over drug turf. They’re very often the result of an argument that spins out of control. Here in Chicago fully three-quarters of shootings stem from an altercation that happens to take place in reach of a gun. That means that one way to reduce gun violence is to make situations in which those altercations occur are more forgiving,” Ander said.
The best way to do that is to limit the widespread availability of illegal guns, she said.
The Crime Lab estimates illegally gun carrying in Chicago spiked 100% in 2020.
Getting federal gun law changes through Congress, though, is a political hurdle.
Durbin says he's hoping his bid to crack down on so-called ghost guns, which are made of gun parts without serial numbers to evade tracing, won’t be as controversial.
He and other Democrats also said they are hopeful that President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better package will be passed and signed into law, as it will devote millions of dollars toward violence prevention and interruption programs.
Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky