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Windy City Gun Sentences Driven by Politics, Not Facts

While it used to be the conservatives who proposed new mandatory sentences for every crime du jour, in Democratic Illinois, it's the left-leaning policymakers who are agitating for the new gun law. What the heck is going on in the Land of Lincoln?
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The world has gone mad. Or maybe it is just Illinois. While states across the country are moving away from counterproductive and costly mandatory minimum sentencing laws, Illinois is considering adopting a new one for gun possession. And while it used to be the conservatives who proposed new mandatory sentences for every crime du jour, in Democratic Illinois, it's the left-leaning policymakers who are agitating for the new gun law. What the heck is going on in the Land of Lincoln?

The only fact beyond dispute is that Chicago, like all cities, wants to reduce its homicide rate. After that, everything gets distorted. Some say that Chicago is now the murder capital of the nation. Since what really matters is the homicide rate, i.e., the number of homicides compared to the total population, this claim is simply untrue. There are dozens of cities in America that have higher murder rates and qualify as more dangerous. From news reports, one also might believe that Chicago's homicide rate has reached unprecedented levels. That's not true, either. The city's homicide rate was higher last year than it has been since 2008, but it is nowhere near the elevated levels Chicagoans experienced in the 1980s and '90s.

None of this is to say that the residents of Chicago should not want a safer city in which to live and raise their children. And the Windy City does fare worse when compared to New York, which has experienced a remarkable drop in homicides over the past two decades. So, even if the problem is somewhat exaggerated, it's real enough to the people who live there. The focus for city and state lawmakers, then, is to find ways to reduce the murder rate.

Unfortunately, some influential leaders, including Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, are pushing the Democrat-controlled state legislature to increase the mandatory minimum sentences for individuals convicted of illegal gun possession from one to three years. Longer mandatory sentences for unlawful gun possession were adopted in New York City, too, where McCarthy used to work. Supporters of the Chicago bill hope to copy New York, where the murder rate is at its lowest level since 1963. The problem is that mandatory minimum gun sentences didn't cause New York's success, and they won't bring success in Chicago, either. They will, however, cost a lot of money.

The University of Chicago Crime Lab's cost-benefit analysis of the Chicago gun bill, released last week, cites the New York experience to argue that the new law deserves support. The Crime Lab's paper cited Professor Frank Zimring's book, The City That Became Safe: New York's Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control, saying the work "shows that as New York City policies changed in the direction of increasing the chances that [unlawful use of a weapon, or] UUW would result in arrest, and changed court practices to increase consistency of punishment for UUW cases, gun violence fell alongside reductions in total prison commitments."

The report somehow leaves out Professor Zimring's more recent comment that, in terms of reducing violent crime, New York's gun mandatory minimum law was "beside the point." He notes that 90 percent of the drop in Big Apple homicides was achieved before the mandatory minimum law even took effect. About Chicago's proposed gun law specifically, Professor Zimring said, "I think that what's going on is that the superintendent and the mayor in Chicago are under a 'do something fast political pressure,' and in my experience, at least, that's never been good for penal codes."

Professor Zimring is right; good sounding politics often produces terrible sentencing policy. If you scare the public enough, no punishment will seem too harsh. But is a longer mandatory minimum for illegal gun possession tough? Or is it just stupid? There is a dearth of evidence that the bill will reduce violent crime, but plenty that it will cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars more on prisons. That falls in the "just stupid" category.

The debate in Illinois is strange, indeed, when the voice of moderation and reason is the National Rifle Association. Yes, it was the NRA, often cast as extremists, who weighed in last week to remind policymakers that the new law would have unintended, wholly negative, occasionally ridiculous consequences, such as sending Bulls legend Scottie Pippen to state prison for three years after his 1994 arrest for having a loaded gun in his car.

Chicago's leaders are smart to examine the anti-crime policies helped other large cities reduce homicides and gun violence. But they should only copy policies that worked. Longer mandatory minimum sentences for unlawful gun possession have not reduced crime anywhere. Illinois lawmakers should reject this failed approach and embrace solutions that work: giving courts the flexibility to use scarce and expensive prison resources for only the most violent and dangerous gun owners.