Earlier this week, I drove down to Springfield to testify about mandatory minimum sentences for illegal gun possession. Appearing alongside county prosecutors and Chicago Police Superintendent McCarthy, I felt like a stage extra in a Scott Turow novel.
I do hope Illinois establishes tougher sentences in this area. The prototypical Chicago homicide follows a pretty simple formula: A couple of volatile young guys plus some disagreement plus the presence of a gun equals dead body. We could do a lot better in that plus gun part. CPD captures nine times as many guns per-capita as the NYPD does, and nearly three times as many guns as the LAPD does. When people are caught with illegal guns–particular when that gun is not involved in some other crime—the criminal justice system doesn’t always take these cases as seriously as it should.
Game theorists will recognize the self-reinforcing nature of this problem. Surveys of even serious offenders indicate that the most prominent initial motive for gun-carrying is self-protection. Young offenders arm-up because they are scared of each other. They believe (rightly, in equilibrium) that their rivals will have guns. I met a public health student yesterday who summarized things pretty succinctly: “You’d rather be caught with a gun than without one.” Not surprisingly, once an offender has the gun–and carries it in public–other things are bound to happen. That gun turns out to be pretty handy for other crimes, too.
I’m not a huge fan of mandatory minimums, particularly in the area of drug-selling or mechanical policies such as three-strikes applied to nonviolent crimes. I think differently about illegal guns. Buying and selling these weapons–carrying them, brandishing them in public—these activities support the ecosystem of lethal violence. Swift and certain sanctions are essential to disrupt this ecosystem. The sanctions don’t have to be draconian, but should include credible time in jail.