After the tragic mass shooting in Las Vegas—on the heels of so many similar tragedies in recent American history—we are all not only in shock, but looking for ways to prevent it from happening again.
Gun control has been a natural focal point: Do we as Americans think it makes sense for anyone to be able to assemble such an arsenal? In response to these sorts of questions on Monday the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, noted that while this wasn’t the time to talk about gun control, “I think if you look to Chicago, where you had over 4,000 victims of gun-related crimes last year, they have the strictest gun laws in the country. That certainly hasn’t helped there.”
Her comment reflects a deep misunderstanding of what is going on in Chicago right now, and why this is actually a critical national—not local—issue.
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Sanders is right that Chicago is afflicted by the problem of gun violence. She is also right that the streets of Chicago have far too many guns in the hands of teenagers, convicted felons, and other people who should not legally have them.
But where did these guns come from? Note that the number of gun stores in the city of Chicago, the third largest in America with 2.7 million residents spread out across 237 square miles, is exactly zero. The guns that drive the violence problem in the city, that terrorizes countless families trying to raise their children in the most impacted neighborhoods on the city’s disadvantaged south and west sides, basically all come from somewhere outside of Chicago.
A report prepared for the Chicago government and the Chicago Police Department by the University of Chicago Crime Lab (which Jens runs) found that 60% of the guns used to commit crimes in the city between 2009 and 2013 came from states with weaker gun laws than those of Illinois. The most common source of crime guns in Chicago is Indiana, which alone accounts for nearly one-third of the total. Almost all the remaining guns came from gun stores located outside of Chicago, in Illinois counties that have much weaker gun laws than those of the city.
Chicago is not alone. In New York City, 87% of crime guns come from out of state. In Boston, 54% of crime guns originated in a different state. Even in Pennsylvania, a state with relatively weak gun laws, 45% of crime guns were first purchased at a gun store in another state.
None of this should come as a surprise. America’s decentralized, federalist approach to gun regulation sets a very low minimum level of gun regulation that each city and state must abide by, but then lets individual jurisdictions supplement federal law by imposing stricter local regulations if they want. The idea is to let local gun laws in, say, New Mexico be different from those in New York, since people in different places have different preferences and beliefs. This system would make perfect sense in a world in which each city or state were an island.
But that is not the world we live in. One of us is based in Philadelphia and travels to Chicago all the time for work. The other is originally from Philadelphia and now lives in Chicago. Driving back and forth between the two cities involves crossing the borders of four states and countless cities and towns. Never have our cars been inspected for possession of any contraband that shouldn’t be crossing state lines, like the semiautomatic pistols, revolvers, and—increasingly—assault rifles that ruin so many lives on the streets of Chicago.
In the area of gun violence, the policies of one’s neighboring jurisdictions matter a lot. Just like with efforts to improve local air quality, cities and states cannot solve this problem on their own. What we need is constructive leadership from Washington, DC.
Jens Ludwig is the McCormick Foundation professor at the University of Chicago and director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab. Michael A. Nutter was the 98th mayor of Philadelphia and is currently a senior fellow at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy and a member of the National Advisory Board of the University of Chicago Urban Labs.