In February, Illinois State Sen. Rickey Hendon came home to discover that his house on the Westside of Chicago had been robbed. The burglary got more than the usual amount of press attention because the former alderman lost not only money but also an unregistered handgun. It has been illegal since 1983 for even the most law-abiding Chicago residents to own handguns; only guns owned before the ban was passed can be registered, and they must be re-registered every two years. Possession of an unregistered handgun carries a penalty of less than a year in prison or a $500 fine.
Hendon was unapologetic. "I have a right to protect myself," the black Democrat told the Chicago Sun-Times. The police decided not to charge Hendon with violating the gun law because it wasn't clear who actually owned the gun.
Hendon's attitude is increasingly common among Chicago's black political leaders. During the recent primary campaign for the presidency of the Cook County Board, for instance, the leader of the Harold Washington Party caused a stir at a candidates' forum when he derided gun control as ineffective. Those who say gun control deters crime ignore recent findings by criminologist Gary Kleck that suggest guns are more often used to stop crimes than commit them, said David Reed, head of the party named for Chicago's first black mayor. "I'd rather be tried by 12 than carried by six," said Reed, a business consultant.
That sentiment is common among the residents of Chicago's tougher neighborhoods. It's easy for people with wealth and political power to push stricter and stricter gun control laws, notes Alderman William Beavers, who represents the working-class, mostly black South Shore district. The wealthy, he says, "can afford to pay a detective agency or some kind of police agency to act as security." His constituents, he argues, deserve the right to protect themselves.
Beavers is no stranger to gun crime. Before his election to the City Council 11 years ago, he spent 21 years in the Chicago Police Department, working some of the neighborhoods responsible for the city's nickname of "Beirut by the Lake." Now, for the second time in five years, he has proposed legislation to reopen handgun registration. The idea is endorsed by other prominent black political leaders, including activist Sokoni Karanja of the Center for New Horizons and Aldermen Virgil Jones and Robert Shaw, who feel that gun bans prevent law-abiding citizens from protecting themselves.
While the national press has sympathetically covered high-profile attempts by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Chicago Housing Authority to control guns in Chicago's federally funded housing projects, it has ignored black political leaders' challenges to the city's draconian handgun-control laws.
"There's always been a kind of streak in the black community here of those who want to defend themselves," says Northwestern University law professor Daniel Polsby, an expert on gun issues. But that proclivity, notes Polsby, is counterbalanced by the trend—both nationally and in the greater Chicago area—away from ideas of "responsible gun ownership" and toward stricter gun control. "There's a tremendous amount of momentum in the culture to turn gun ownership into…an unacceptable thing," observes Polsby.
That is certainly the case in Chicago, where the 1983 freeze has driven gun ownership underground. Since the freeze, the number of registered handguns has declined precipitously as owners have died or have failed to re-register. Just after the ordinance went into effect, there were about 400,000 handguns registered in Chicago. The Chicago Police Department says that number currently stands at 143,000.
Total official registration of all guns, including rifles, shotguns, and handguns, has declined at a similar clip. In 1982, residents registered 727,000 guns. Twelve years later, that number stands at 215,134, even though Chicagoans can still legally buy long guns. While numbers of registered weapons have fallen, few observers assert that the smaller numbers mean fewer weapons actually in circulation.
The 1983 handgun registration freeze is a legacy of one-term Mayor Jane Byrne, who capitalized on the anti-gun sentiment that flourished in the early 1980s in the wake of the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan. The suburbs of Morton Grove, Evanston, and Oak Park outlawed handguns about the same time Chicago did, although their bans included even existing weapons.
From the beginning, the Chicago ban elicited negative reactions from black leaders. Local newspapers quoted several black politicians who called the ban racist because it penalizes people who live in poorer neighborhoods with higher crime rates—often black neighborhoods. Beavers, however, doesn't emphasize the racial dimension in opposing the gun-registration freeze. Instead, he stresses Second Amendment issues and pragmatic policy concerns.
"The Constitution allows you to bear arms in your home," he says. "But according to our city ordinance, it's illegal to own a firearm that is not registered." (While he defends a right to ownership, the alderman is no Second Amendment purist. He is, for instance, against the issuing of carry permits.)
Beavers is also disturbed that the registration freeze forces law-abiding citizens into breaking the law if they, like Sen. Hendon, try to protect themselves by keeping a handgun in the house. And the freeze, Beavers thinks, makes the police's job tougher by making it more difficult to track stolen firearms. "Guns are stolen now from people who don't have them registered and won't report the [theft]," says Beavers.
The sponsor of the registration-freeze ordinance, Alderman Edward Burke, has been quoted as saying the ban should be re-examined. With Burke's apparent support and backing from other black leaders, Beavers thinks there's a good possibility his ordinance might pass. But Beavers recognizes that he faces a tough battle. One of the staunchest supporters of his previous effort, Alderman Ernest Jones, died in 1992. The current proposal is still pending in the council's Police and Fire Committee, which Beavers chairs. Most important, Mayor Richard Daley—whose resistance in 1989 effectively kept the proposal from even making it to a full council vote—is again opposed to renewed registration, and usually as the mayor goes, so goes the city.
And even though Beavers stresses that lifting the ban would make life easier for the city's cops, the Chicago Police Department remains a major adversary. The CPD sent the lone opposing witness when Beavers's Police and Fire Committee held hearings five years ago. A department spokeswoman would not comment on official police policy for this article, but she noted that the CPD has opposed reopening registration in the past and called the idea the police might endorse new registration "ludicrous."
Even though Beavers's second attempt to revoke the gun-registration ban faces long odds, it may represent an emerging urban consensus that gun-control laws have failed both at curbing violent crime and protecting citizens. Gun-control expert David B. Kopel of the Independence Institute in Denver notes that several states have passed much more liberal carrying laws in the past year. "The vast majority of Americans continue to believe that gun ownership for defensive purposes is a right," says Kopel. Recent legislation on the state and local levels reflects that sentiment.
For his part, Beavers remains pledged to change Chicago's handgun registration law by hammering home arguments born out of real-world experience. Gun control will always fail, he argues, because criminals are never going to register their guns. And as for ordinary citizens who feel a need to protect themselves: "People are going to own guns. You cannot deny them the right to own a gun."
Chicago native Liam T. A. Ford is a reporter for the City News Bureau.