CHICAGO — A Cook County commissioner is asking the U.S. Attorney's Office to take a more active role in prosecuting gun cases to help stem the tide of Chicago murders.
“Since the beginning of 2011, we have lost almost 1,000 people to gun violence in Chicago," said Commissioner John Fritchey (D-Chicago). "That is a staggering and unacceptable number."
Police Supt. Garry McCarthy has said Chicago cops confiscated 7,400 guns last year, 300 of them assault weapons. Yet, according to Fritchey, federal prosecution of local gun crimes fell 45 percent from 2011 to 2012.
Fritchey said Wednesday that a program called Project Safe Neighborhoods initiated a decade ago by former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald had proved effective in uniting his office with the Cook County State's Attorney's Office in prosecuting local gun cases. Yet the number of federal prosecutions on gun crimes in U.S. District Court in Chicago actually dropped from 129 in 1999 to 73 in 2011 and 40 last year.
Randall Samborn, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, responded that those numbers appeared to count only federal cases that resulted from the safe neighborhood program and represented "one small piece of our overall federal firearms prosecutions. Our numbers are greater than what he cited."
According to Samborn, that didn't count cases brought independently by the FBI, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and in conjunction with other law-enforcement agencies in the Northern District of Illinois. He said from 2008 through 2011, the district averaged 84 cases a year involving federal gun violations, concerning 108 defendants — a better representation, as some cases involve multiple defendants. Last year, there were exactly 108 defendants charged in the district on federal gun laws.
"So looking at just one sliver of the case load," Samborn added, "we just think really misrepresents our efforts."
“While I believe that the long-term solutions to our gun-violence epidemic range from better education for our children to more afterschool programs and job opportunities, it is also clear that something must be done in the short term to reduce the number of shootings taking place on a daily basis,” Fritchey said. “The evidence suggests that more aggressive use of the federal laws on the books, and the stiff penalties they carry, significantly reduces the amount of crimes committed by armed career criminals or by felons in possession of a weapon.”
Fritchey said prosecuting gun violations currently on the books is something all sides of the gun-control debate can agree on.
"Reducing gun crimes by going after offenders through the use of existing federal laws is a concept that has been supported in the past by gun-safety advocates such as Sarah Brady of the Brady Campaign as well as by Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association," Fritchey said. "If we are looking for common ground on the issue of reducing gun violence, here it is.”
Samborn said that through PSN, the feds consult with the Cook County State's Attorney's Office on all felony gun cases that might have a federal application.
"The overriding consideration is where is the likelihood of a substantially greater sentence for the defendant?" he said.
The landscape changed, however, in 2006 with the state adoption of the Armed Habitual Offender statute, which created a Class X felony with a prison term of six to 30 years. That outstripped federal gun penalties, which generally have a maximum sentence of 10 years, Samborn said. He added there is a harsher federal standard for someone found to be an "armed career criminal," but that likely wouldn't apply to, say, a gang banger firing randomly at a group of teenagers.
Fritchey said he had sent a letter to acting U.S. Attorney Gary Shapiro asking that he devote more resources to prosecuting local federal gun violations, which upon conviction receive mandatory minimum sentences in prison without possibility of parole.
"We have a role to play in an anti-violence effort throughout Chicago and the Northern District of Illinois. It's a very central core of our function," Samborn responded. "We're not only sensitive to it, but we've got people here with their sleeves rolled up who are working virtually endlessly ... to tackle the problem in the best way."
He also said the feds had taken a public-relations approach to combating the problem, through public-service announcements and also severe warnings issued to parolees as part of the PSN program citing the harsh penalties they face if caught with a gun.
Fritchey spoke out about Chicago gun violence as the Cook County Board passed a resolution honoring slain King College Prep sophomore Hadiya Pendleton. He said, while recently on vacation, he had been asked several times about Chicago's murder rate, and that the city's global reputation had gone from mobsters and Al Capone to Michael Jordan and now back again.
"The reputation we have now is a shameful one," Fritchey said. "It is a sad and shameful point that we've gotten to. We have to do better."