UCAN CEO Emeritus: The Root Cause of Gun Violence is Guns

Originally published September 12, 2016, in the Chicago Tribune, this op-ed was written by Tom Vanden Berk, CEO emeritus of CHHSM-member UCAN in Chicago and founder of Illinois’ Gun Violence Prevention Political Action Committee.

Dueling op-eds published last week [in the Chicago Tribune] considered whether a “war on guns” — namely tougher mandatory sentences for repeat gun offenders — is the right strategy for combating Chicago’s gun violence epidemic. Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez argues that the “revolving [prison] door” for gun offenders is to blame for Chicago’s gun violence. Public Defender Amy Campanelli challenges her, predicting that this “war on guns” will fail much the way the “war on drugs” has.

Both Alvarez and Campanelli make valid points. But both ignore the most obvious root cause of Chicago’s gun violence crisis: guns.

Unlike illegal drugs, guns are legal products and may be lawfully owned by persons who are not prohibited by law from possessing them. But because of weak gun laws, guns are readily diverted from legal users to the illegal market. Research from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the University of Chicago Crime Lab make clear there are multiple ways guns are diverted to the illegal market. They are stolen; they are sold or traded in off-the-books transactions without a background check on the buyer, often in person at gun shows or online; they are sold by gun dealers to straw buyers.

Each of these pathways is preventable. Gun owners should be responsible for making sure the buyer can pass a background check and should be held accountable if they fail to do so. Likewise, they should be required to notify law enforcement if a gun is lost or stolen and held accountable for failure to report. Gun dealers must be liable when they look the other way and sell to straw purchasers.

There is empirical evidence that stronger gun laws reduce the diversion of firearms to illegal users and save lives. Despite this, most of these laws do not exist in Illinois — or if they do, they’re toothless. Lawmakers in Springfield are sitting on a bill that would give Illinois the ability to encourage better business practices among gun dealers and hold corrupt dealers accountable. Choking off the pipeline of illegal guns would curb the war that is raging in the streets of Chicago. Already this year, the Chicago Police Department has recovered more than 5,000 guns — a nearly 25 percent increase over last year, more than New York City and Los Angeles combined.

A war on guns would mean getting serious about the sources of illegal guns. That battle cry is long overdue.

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