High Court Ruling Fuels Chicago's Handgun Debate

Twice in two years, the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down handgun bans in major American cities.

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The first ruling two years ago overturned a gun law in Washington, D.C. The second high court decision, which came last week, involved a similar statute in Chicago.

The City Council quickly changed the law — and it is now legal to own a handgun in the Windy City.

Gun rights advocates say Chicago residents will be safer from violent crime. But those advocating gun control say the opposite: that guns in the home put more people at risk.

Self-Defense

Those who support fewer restrictions on guns point to incidents like a recent break-in on Chicago's West Side — the kind of frightening event that happens far too often in crime-ridden neighborhoods.

"Happened at about 4 in the morning," says Jose Perez, who lives two doors down from where an armed intruder was breaking into the house of an elderly man and his family. Perez woke up — and heard gunshots.

"The guy broke the basement window in the back," Perez continues. "Mr. Gant heard the noise with the window shattering open. ... He got up, I guess got his gun out and the guy made it to the first-floor porch. The other guy fired first and then Mr. Gant fired after him — ended up striking the guy and killing him."

Thank God, Perez says, the Korean War veteran was able to defend himself, even though this happened a month before the Supreme Court ruling, when owning a handgun in Chicago was still against the law.

"I think he did the right thing," Perez says. "They're 80 years old, him and his wife, and the grandson was with them, you know, and he's about 12 years old. If the intruder would have came in, it would've been a tragedy, probably — found the whole family dead, shot up, you know?"

So even though it was illegal at the time, having a gun in the home may have saved lives.

"It's a pure case of self-defense, and it's the kind of thing that needs to happen in the city of Chicago, if you expect the crime rate to drop," says Richard Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association.

Standing outside of Chicago's City Hall as the City Council was enacting new restrictions on handgun ownership, Pearson argued the city was still going too far. He thinks it will prevent citizens from protecting themselves in their own homes.

Suicide

But Dr. Richard Keller views guns in the home through a different lens.

"My father had a handgun," Keller says. "When I was 17 years old, he used it to end his own life."

His father's suicide was a shocking, confusing and life-changing event for Keller. In his line of work now, Keller sees many similar self-inflicted gunshot victims: He is the coroner of suburban Lake County.

"I've seen cases where if they — very likely, if they had not had a handgun in the home, they would not have used it upon themselves," Keller says.

Many suicides are impulsive acts, he says, and ready access to guns in the home makes it far too easy to act on that impulse.

Statistics show firearms are the most common method of committing suicide, and, in terms of all gun deaths, suicides far outnumber homicides.

It frustrates Keller and others that the link between the easy availability of handguns and suicide is rarely a part of the gun control debate.

Keller argues that even though the Supreme Court ruled that cities and states cannot impose outright bans on handguns, significant restrictions are needed.

"I have plenty of job security," Keller says. "There will always be deaths. I don't need things going on that are likely going to increase the business of the coroner's office."

Difficult To Regulate

Thom Mannard of the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence challenges the assertion that having guns in the home makes families safer.

"The evidence shows that handguns in the home are more likely to be used in a suicide, an unintentional shooting or a homicide with family members in that home than ever used in self-defense," Mannard says.

Jens Ludwig, a professor of public policy at the University of Chicago, has done research that he says suggests allowing fewer guns leads to fewer gun deaths.

But, he says, "it's going to be very difficult for cities and states to regulate their own way out of the gun violence problem in the context of a country where we have 250 million-plus guns already in circulation, and in which it's very easy to move across city and state lines."

Ludwig adds even the strictest gun control laws are not a panacea when it comes to efforts to try to reduce gun violence.

Something that's clear in Chicago, where even with a handgun ban, guns poured in and gun violence soared.

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