Illegal gun possession arrests nationwide doubled from 2010 to 2022, to more than 38,000 cases annually, as a key strategy to combat the rise in gun violence. But in the city that epitomizes gun violence, Chicago, that gun enforcement strategy overwhelmingly focused on possession crimes, not use, and as a result the tactic has not substantially reduced shootings, the Marshall Project reports. At the same time, the arrests skew heavily against people of color. “People are for ‘gun control’ but against ‘mass incarceration,’” said James Forman Jr., a professor at Yale Law School and author of “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.” “They haven’t thought about how this particular form of gun control ends up helping to produce and sustain mass incarceration.”
Recent research shows that most people convicted in Illinois for felony gun possession don’t go on to commit a violent crime, and the majority of those sentenced to prison for gun possession don’t have past convictions for violence. Instead, people who already committed violent crimes are more likely to do so again. The racial disparities in this enforcement are glaring. Although Black people comprise less than a third of the city’s population, they were more than 8 in 10 of those arrested for unlawful possession in the timeframe reporters reviewed. To legally purchase a gun and carry it in public, Illinois residents need two licenses: a firearm owner’s permit that costs $11 online and a concealed carry card. If a person lacks both licenses — or has a gun owner’s card but not a concealed carry permit — they can be arrested for illegal gun possession. In the 2010-2022 analysis of arrests, white men and women were underrepresented, relative to their population in Chicago. Even though gun ownership is far more common among men, Chicago police arrested fewer than 1,000 white men but more than 1,500 Black women. They arrested Black men for gun possession far more than any others: 29,805 arrests compared to 5,204 for Latino men and 950 white men and 122 white women. Daniel Webster, a researcher who studies gun violence reduction at Johns Hopkins University, says possession cases shouldn’t overshadow larger problems like gun trafficking or illegal sales. He said it’s important to acknowledge the disparity in gun violence without justifying racial profiling. “There's a very small number of individuals in the communities most impacted by gun violence that are driving the violence,” Webster said. “Why would we not have enforcement of gun laws map on to that?"