Long guns submitted at a gun turn-in at St. Sabina Catholic Church on the South Side.
The Marshall Project
This article was produced by The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system.
In Chicago, the race to get guns off the street often begins with a police stop.
Officers just need a pretext to search someone. A man in a white Ford sedan blocking an alley. A bulge in a fanny pack at the beach. The smell of “fresh cannabis” wafting from an open window. Tinted windows. A missing license plate. Police reports show that the list goes on.
“Each gun recovered, regardless of how, is a potential life saved,” then-police Supt. David Brown said at a news conference last year, a mantra he repeated frequently.
But, in Chicago, gun enforcement overwhelmingly focuses on crimes involving possession — not use.
Officials justify the focus on confiscating guns — even if they aren’t being fired at anybody — as a way of curtailing violence. Yet even as the number of possession arrests skyrocketed, the number of shootings increased, and the percentage of shootings involving victims in which someone was arrested declined.
For this article, The Marshall Project read nearly 300 arrest reports to understand the tactics police use to find guns and compiled decades of police data showing a history of discriminatory gun enforcement, conducting more than 100 interviews with people navigating gun cases, researchers, attorneys and community residents. Key findings:
From 2010 to 2022, the police made more than 38,000 arrests for illegal gun possession. The number of these arrests — almost always a felony in Illinois — doubled during this time.Illegal possession is the most serious offense in most of the cases analyzed, the charges often bearing names that imply violence, like “unlawful use of a weapon.”Research by Loyola University Chicago found that most people convicted in Illinois for these charges don’t go on to commit a violent crime and that people who already committed violent crimes are more likely to do so again. Although Black people comprise less than a third of the city’s population, they were more than 8 in 10 of those arrested for guns in the period reviewed. The majority were men in their 20s and 30s.Even if not sentenced to prison, those we interviewed faced criminal records, probation, job loss, legal fees and car impoundments.Weapons arrests, which include illegal gun possession, are at their highest since the mid-1990s.
“Guns are not assembly-line cases, and they shouldn’t be treated as such,” says Chris Hudspeth, 31, who has been incarcerated for illegal possession. “I’m scared for my life — and I gotta go to prison because I fear for my life, for my family’s safety? Because we’re not fortunate enough to live someplace else?”
The Chicago Police Department did not respond to interview requests, nor would it comment on The Marshall Project’s findings.
“People are for ‘gun control’ but against ‘mass incarceration,’ ” says James Forman Jr., a Yale Law School professor and author of “Locking Up Our Own.” “They haven’t thought about how this particular form of gun control ends up helping to produce and sustain mass incarceration.”
Elijah Hudson, a fully licensed gun owner, was arrested during an October traffic stop for refusing to disclose his gun to officers and having expired license plates. Hudson filed a complaint against police last December.
Jim Vondruska/The Marshall Project
Expired plates leads to arrest — of a legal gun owner
One evening last October, Chicago police pulled over Elijah Hudson, 29, for expired license plates, arrest reports show.
After he agreed to settle the ticket in court, body-camera footage of the arrest shows an officer asking Hudson, “What’s with the attitude?” and then asking whether he was a licensed gun owner.
“I just don’t know what that has to do with expired license plates,” Hudson responded, not answering the question.
To legally purchase a gun and carry it in public, Illinois residents need two licenses: a firearm owner’s permit that costs $11 online and a concealed-carry card, known as a FOID card and a CCL card. The process can cost upwards of $300 in fees and take several months. People lacking both licenses — or who have a gun owner’s card but not a concealed-carry permit — can be arrested for illegal possession.
Officers quickly became frustrated with Hudson, the footage shows, as he continued to question the relevancy of guns for the traffic stop.
“It has to do with all of our safeties. If there’s a firearm in this vehicle — all of our safeties are at risk now,” said an officer near the passenger side of his vehicle.
Hudson said his pistol was in a computer bag on the passenger-side floorboard. While he and an officer standing near the driver’s-side window debated the stop, at least five additional police vehicles and nearly a dozen officers arrived.
“If he doesn’t have a FOID or CCL, I’m breaking the window — just letting you know,” another officer said while checking Hudson’s credentials.
Once police confirmed that Hudson was a fully licensed gun owner, they arrested him for refusing an officer’s order, refusing to disclose his gun and having expired license plates.
A judge dismissed his charges weeks later.
In December, Hudson filed a complaint with the city’s police oversight agency. “I want the officers to be disciplined, and I want people to see how they have a presumption of criminality if you’re dark-skinned in Chicago, and you have legal firearms,” he said.
The Marshall Project found that Black people account for most of those arrested across Chicago, regardless of neighborhood demographics. Two areas where white people were more likely to be arrested included O’Hare Airport and Midway Airport, where federal Transportation Security Administration agents call police when someone brings a firearm through security.
Even after decades of gun arrests, crime data shows that Black communities in Chicago still bear the brunt of gun violence. The majority of those killed are Black men in their 20s and 30s.
Defenders of the current tactics argue that, because gun violence harms Black communities, the arrests for gun violence reflect not racial disparities in enforcement but where violence takes place.
But Daniel Webster, a researcher who studies gun violence reduction at Johns Hopkins University, says possession cases shouldn’t overshadow larger problems like gun trafficking or illegal sales. Webster says it’s important to acknowledge the disparity in gun violence without justifying racial profiling.
“Why would we not have enforcement of gun laws map on to that?” he says. “But, again, it doesn’t mean you need to stop and frisk everyone in the damn neighborhood.”
At the end of 2022, the Chicago Police Department reported more than 12,700 seizures. Many of the firearms recovered were revolvers and pistols, not semi-automatic rifles or ghost guns. And they often originated from nearby suburban gun stores, where they were first legally purchased.
Chicago’s current push to get guns off the street follows years of documented problems with some of the tactics its police use. A 2017 Justice Department investigation found that officers coerced residents into providing information on guns by dropping them off in dangerous areas.
Under outgoing Mayor Lori Lightfoot, arrests for violating the state’s weapons laws are among their highest in more than 20 years.
The mayor’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Newly elected Mayor Brandon Johnson’s campaign said he would continue to crack down on illegal gun possession as mayor, including creating a police unit called the “Illegal Guns Department,” adding detectives and cracking down on guns coming from states with lax laws. His office did not directly address The Marshall Project’s findings on possession arrests.
“We must confront the violent crime that is paralyzing our neighborhoods while also eradicating the systemic racism that exists in American law enforcement,” a campaign spokesperson said in an email.
To see what this enforcement looks like, The Marshall Project focused on more than 225 gun arrests conducted over last year’s Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends — holidays that tend to have a heightened police presence — and found that the overwhelming majority of those arrested were Black men. Most people had no arrest warrants, nor were they on supervised release, probation or suspected of being in a gang. In most of the incidents analyzed, the police were not responding to 911 calls about a person with a gun.
In arrests where possession was the most severe charge — about 140 of the cases — more than 7 in 10 began with a traffic violation. After this initial stop, police often used some other justification for a search, like the smell of marijuana.
In one-third of the stops, the person arrested had a gun owner’s permit but not the license to allow carrying the loaded gun.
“People in the Black community have now started to teach themselves to just comply, just do what the officers want so you can stay alive,” says Takenya Nixon, an assistant Cook County public defender. “It completely negates the fact that you have constitutional rights and that you do not have to allow an officer to search a car, and you are well within your rights to question an officer.”
Citing a need for a gun for safety
The arrest reports show that many people were cooperative with police when they asked about guns. In some cases, they told police they had the gun for safety.
“He has the firearm for protection due to him being shot and robbed in the past,” the police noted after one arrest. “Arrestee related that he was shot at two Mondays ago in an attempt[ed] carjacking where he was the victim,” another report reads.
The police make a large number of stops but find a minuscule amount of weapons. For instance, officers stopped more than 6,500 people from the Friday evening before Memorial Day through the following Monday. They confiscated about 130 guns in possession arrests.
“We have an incredible problem when it comes to gun violence, but our strategy is failing, and it’s making it worse,” Cook County Public Defender Sharone Mitchell Jr. says. “Guilty or not, there’s a significant impact when it comes to really damaging, invasive police behavior.”
By the time Chris Hudspeth turned 30, he had spent most of his adult life incarcerated for illegal gun possession cases. He says he carried guns after witnessing gun violence at a young age and eventually losing his best friend to a shooting.
“I can’t really explain the rage that I felt, but I just wanted revenge,” he says. “All my friends were joining gangs, and a lot of shootings were going on. It kind of scared me … That’s when guns started getting for real.”
By 23, he was arrested as an armed habitual criminal under the state’s three-strikes law. He spent the remainder of his 20s behind bars.
“I’d never in my life heard of a [gun owner’s permit] until I went to prison,” he says.
Some of the Black men The Marshall Project interviewed had records of serious crimes, including domestic violence. Others had previous gun possession cases or said the police had searched them for firearms before. For some, it was their first arrest.
Chris Hudspeth witnessed gun violence at a young age and has been incarcerated repeatedly for illegal gun possession. “You want me to live amongst criminals, thieves, robbers and murderers and not have anything to protect myself [with]?” he said.
Lawrence Agyei/For The Marshall Project
Most of the arrestees interviewed did not want to be named because they feared it would affect their ongoing cases or stigmatize them.
“I’m not really able to work because, the day I was arrested, I was in the middle of an Uber Eats order, and they got notified that I was arrested with a gun,” one 32-year-old man wrote in an email. “I can no longer work with them, and my car got daily tow holding fees, and now I’m being evicted. So that one traffic stop pretty much ruined my life.”
Kim Foxx: Disparities in who is charged with gun crimes
Chicago isn’t alone in its practices. The Marshall Project found major racial disparities in enforcement in cities across the country — including New York, Houston, Cleveland and Memphis, Tenn. — despite differences in gun laws and homicide rates. Reports show these patterns exist at the federal level, too.
Studies have shown policing that targets high-violence areas can lead to reductions in violence. But the effects are limited to the cities and periods that researchers study. Even researchers who found arrests and gun seizures reduced crime raised concerns about how police casting an overly wide net in Black communities can sow distrust or result in misconduct.
“There are barriers about who gets a gun, thus, there are disparities in who gets charged with them and who has the privilege to have them,” Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx says.
A few weeks before last Christmas, Bertha Purnell sat in a Chicago courtroom, anxious and angry. Her 28-year-old son Maurice was fatally shot less than a mile from her home on the West Side nearly six years before. After that, she retired as a nurse, created her own nonprofit and became a victims’ rights activist.
Purnell says that even before her son was killed, she opposed illegal gun ownership.
“We have to somehow get a hold, to make sure that guns are carried legally and people are responsible gun owners,” she says.
Although an average of more than 3,000 people are shot in Chicago each year, the type of justice Purnell experienced is fleeting for most. Since 2010, records show police have failed to make an arrest in more than 8 in 10 shootings.
The police often step up gun possession enforcement following increases in violence. The shift is stark. At the beginning of 2010, fewer than half of gun arrests involved cases in which possession was the most serious offense. As of last year, they account for more than 80% of arrests with a gun — even as homicides in recent years hit their highest levels in decades.
Records show nearly 60% of the 31,000 new felony cases pursued by Foxx’s office in the past three years were for illegal gun possession; roughly 4% were for homicides.
Retired Chicago police detective Kevin Scott says solving violent crimes is harder than making weapons possession arrests because detectives have to compile several types of evidence to prove guilt.
“There’s so many other hoops you have to jump through to determine if someone even committed the crime of murder versus someone [who] had a gun on them,” Scott says. “You can arrest somebody with a gun all day long.”
‘I just can’t see justifying illegal guns’
Purnell doesn’t understand how so many firearms seem to make it into the city, how so many young people can afford them and how they intend to use them.
Still, her views on gun ownership are unwavering. “If you feel like you need to protect yourself, then you need a legal gun,” Purnell says. “I just can’t see justifying illegal guns. I cannot see it.”
The police department frequently boasts of the impact of its gun arrests.
“Already this year, officers have recovered 1,769 guns — an average of more than 29 guns taken off the street every single day since the year began,” the department said in its February crime update, a report that attributed the arrests in part to a decline in shootings.
The Marshall Project spent just over a year reporting this story. In that time, more than 3,200 people were shot in Chicago, and more than 600 died from their injuries. They were shot in circumstances that included trick-or-treating, saying goodbye to their children and sitting in a grocery store parking lot.
Police have made an arrest in fewer than 1 in 5 of their cases.
Lakeidra Chavis is a staff writer for The Marshall Project. Geoff Hing is a data reporter for The Marshall Project.