By Peter Slevin and Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, July 6, 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 past school year, Mayor Richard M. Daley (D) thinks the Supreme Court majority that overturned the District's gun ban last month is detached from urban reality.
"If they think that's the answer, then they're greatly mistaken," Daley protested 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 looks likely to provide the next critical 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.
Scalia, who spent five years as a law professor at the University of Chicago, close to some of the city's most violent precincts, made clear that some restrictions would be permitted, but the majority opinion left unclear what standards courts should use to assess them.
"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, a longtime 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 nearly 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."
To Gary Slutkin, executive director of CeaseFire, an anti-violence organization that operates out of the University of Illinois at Chicago, the bans in Washington and Chicago have had a limited effect on gun ownership. The desire of people to own guns is more powerful than the government's ability to stop them, he said, although he thinks easier access to firearms would lead to more shootings.
"When there is a demand for a product, whether it's legal or illegal, people get it," Slutkin said. "The main solution to this problem has got to be in the realm of behavior change."
Yoneta Littlejohn is not a constitutional scholar, but she knows about gun violence. Two friends -- teacher Erika Prince and student Chavez Clarke -- died in high-profile shootings in the past year.
"All these people I am close to have been killed by something that should have been stopped a long time ago," Littlejohn, 18, said as she prepared for a cultural exchange in Rwanda. "Just because it's constitutional doesn't mean it should be allowed. The Constitution was based in the 1700s. This is 2008."
Yet culinary student Drenetta Bagwell, 39, thinks a gun might be just what she needs to feel secure on a mean street. She suggests permitting people over 30 with no criminal records to carry a firearm.
"We as women need some type of protection," Bagwell said. "Guns should be banned for criminals, but you should be able to have one if you only use it with a good reason."