Chicago gun ban may test high court ruling

26-year-old law could be at risk, city officials say

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Peter Slevin
Washington Post / July 7, 2008

CHICAGO - One small reflection of Chicago's bloody year is a sign outside a South Side school that says, "Congratulations Class of 2008. Stop the Violence." The school is not a college or a high school, but Carnegie Elementary in Woodlawn.

In a city where homicide rates have risen by 13 percent over the same period last year and 26 students were killed by gunfire in the last school year, Mayor Richard Daley thinks the Supreme Court majority that overturned Washington gun ban last month is detached from urban reality.

"If they think that's the answer, then they're greatly mistaken," Daley, a Democrat, said after hearing that Chicago's 26-year-old gun law is at risk.

"Then why don't we do away with the court system and go back to the Old West? You have a gun and I have a gun, and we'll settle in the streets."

Chicago officials say they have reason to be concerned about the high court's decision. The city appears likely to provide the next crucial test of the justices' ruling as courts decide how far the decision extends to other cities and the 50 states.

Within hours of the 5-to-4 decision written by Justice Antonin Scalia, gun rights groups filed fresh challenges to Chicago's restrictions.

"Nothing in our opinion," Scalia said, "should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms."

Daley and Jody Weis, Chicago's police superintendent, contend that strict gun laws are a needed and justifiable tool. Weis, an FBI veteran, said the court's ruling will "no doubt" make police work harder in a city in which 75 percent of all murders are committed with firearms.

Chicago's murder totals, like those in many large cities, have fallen to less than half the number of the bloody early 1990s. Yet 442 people were killed in the city last year, prompting a debate about tactics, including the effectiveness of a gun ban enacted in 1982.

It was a subject widely discussed after the court's ruling.

"If you ban guns for law-abiding citizens, you will just create a black market with more profit and increase the number of guns on the street," said Tom Sibley, 38, a graphic designer who lives in a southwest Chicago neighborhood where gang violence is commonplace. He opposes the ban.

Stephanie Lewis, 16, was surprised to learn that the ban exists, considering the availability of guns.

Her mother, meanwhile, described herself as a skeptic of guns kept for self-defense, the foundation of the high court's ruling.

"People shouldn't take the law into their own hands," said Loretta Lewis, 53, noting that a Texas man was cleared of shooting to death two men he suspected were burglarizing a neighbor's home.

"Innocent people usually end up getting killed - people don't hit the person they're supposed to get."

Alderman Joe Moore acknowledges that the ban has not eliminated guns, but he predicted the city's violence would grow worse if the law is overturned, as numerous scholars expect.

"Clearly, the bad guys can get guns. I think what laws like Chicago have done is made sure they've taken more guns out of the system regardless," Moore said. "I shudder at the thought of everyone packing heat."

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