Urban Communities are Paying the Price for the Gaping Holes in our Federal Gun Laws

by Akua Amaning

In January 2013, 15-year old Chicago high school student Hadiya Pendleton was in Washington D.C. with her classmates to perform at President Obama’s second inauguration parade. Like so many young Americans, she was full of potential and had a bright future ahead of her. Yet tragically, just one week after her performance, Hadiya was senselessly gunned down while doing nothing more than hanging with friends in a neighborhood park, not more than a mile from the President’s Chicago home. And horrifically, one of her killers was on probation for unlawful gun possession at the time and never should have been able to get a firearm. But gaping holes in our laws make it far too easy for illegal weapons to flow into cities like Chicago and into the hands of those who would do harm, leading to senseless tragedies like what happened to Hadiya.

Urban community gun violence is a massive part of our country’s gun violence epidemic, but is too frequently overlooked within the broader gun violence debate, which often focuses, at least in the press, on mass shootings. Out of all the gun homicides committed in America, around half occur in cities — particularly in urban communities of color. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that it is way too easy to access firearms through illegal gun trafficking channels even in states that have passed commonsense and responsible gun laws to protect their residents. Fortunately, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has a bipartisan and common ground proposal that could really help in America’s fight against urban gun violence.

Illegal gun trafficking channels and straw purchases (when a person buys a firearm for someone else who is prohibited by law from buying one) have allowed individuals to obtain weapons while bypassing background checks, making it far too easy for firearms to get into the hands of wrongdoers. While many states have laws prohibiting gun trafficking and straw purchases, their efforts are being undercut because there is no federal law that prohibits the movement of trafficked weapons across state lines. This makes it much harder for even the best of state laws to ensure illegal guns do not end up on the streets of our urban communities.

Take for example Chicago, Illinois, America’s third largest city. Although Illinois has strong state gun laws, which even include an explicit ban on “firearms trafficking,” Chicago still struggles with issues of gun violence in many of its communities, fueled by a large illegal firearms market. In 2018, the city’s law enforcement recovered nearly 10,000 illegal guns — more than the numbers recovered in either our two largest cities, New York and Los Angeles, that same year. And in prior years, 60% of weapons recovered by police in Chicago came from surrounding states with weaker gun laws, often through Indiana. By obtaining weapons in Indiana or other surrounding states with more permissive laws, gun traffickers are able to bypass Illinois’s strong background checks and anti-trafficking laws to sell in Chicago with ease. Unfortunately, without any federal laws that can hold individuals accountable for trafficking weapons from one state to another, the problem will continue to persist no matter how many commonsense state laws are passed.

That’s why one bill, reintroduced by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) in the 116th Congress, would go a long way to addressing this continued crisis. The Hadiya Pendleton and Nyasia Pryear-Yard Gun Trafficking and Crime Prevention Act of 2019 would make trafficking of firearms illegal under federal law by prohibiting the sale, purchase, or transfer of two or more firearms that cross state lines when either the seller or buyer knows (or has reason to believe) the transaction would be illegal. The bill would also prohibit cross-border straw purchases. If passed, it would be a strong step towards ensuring that law enforcement can act whenever an individual tries to circumvent our gun safety laws. Federal action to address gun trafficking across all 50 states would ensure that state and local jurisdictions are no longer undermined in their efforts to combat America’s urban gun violence epidemic, ultimately keeping these illegal weapons out of the hands of those who intend to cause harm to others.

It is time for federal lawmakers to step up and take real action to address the epidemic of gun violence we are facing. By the end of today, more than 30 people will lose their lives to a gun at the hands of another. When in 8 out of 10 gun crimes the shooter is not the legal owner of the weapon used, we know the steps we need to take to reduce gun violence. It’s way too easy to skirt the law to move illegal firearms from state to state, and we cannot continue to ignore that America’s urban communities are bearing the brunt of these tragedies.