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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Mary Louise Kelly, in for Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Twice in two years, the Supreme Court has struck down handgun bans in major American cities. The first ruling two years ago overturned a gun law in Washington, D.C., and in a moment, we'll hear how things have changed in the nation's capital.

KELLY: The second high court decision came last week and 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.

NPR's David Schaper reports from Chicago.

DAVID SCHAPER: It's the kind of frightening event that happens far too often in high-crime neighborhoods like this one on Chicago's West Side.

Mr. JOE PEREZ: It happened at about four in the morning.

SCHAPER: It happened two doors down from Jose Perez, and it woke him up.

Mr. PEREZ: I heard the shots right from my room.

SCHAPER: An intruder with a gun was breaking into his elderly neighbor's house.

Mr. PEREZ: The guy broke the basement window in the back. Mr. Gant heard the noise with the window shattering open, and he got up. I guess he 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.

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

Mr. PEREZ: Yeah, I think he did the right thing because, you know, 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, you know, it would've been a tragedy, probably found the whole family dead, shot up, you know?

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

Richard Pearson is executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association.

Mr. RICHARD PEARSON (Executive Director, Illinois State Rifle Association): 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.

(Soundbite of siren)

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

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

Dr. RICHARD KELLER (Coroner): My father had a handgun, and when I was 17 years old, he used it to end his own life.

SCHAPER: His father's suicide was a shocking, confusing, life-changing event for the teenage Keller, who in his line of work now sees many similar self-inflicted gunshot victims. You see, Dr. Keller is now the coroner of suburban Lake County, Illinois.

Dr. KELLER: I have seen cases where if they - very likely, if they had not had the handgun in the home, they would not have used it upon themselves.

SCHAPER: Keller says many suicides are impulsive acts, and says easy 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 actually far outnumber homicides. And 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 even though the Supreme Court ruled that cities and states cannot impose outright bans on handguns, significant restrictions are needed.

Dr. KELLER: I have plenty of job security. 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.

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

Mr. THOM MANNARD (Executive Director, Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence): And 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.

SCHAPER: That is true, says Jens Ludwig, a professor of public policy at the University of Chicago, whose own research, he says, suggests allowing fewer guns does lead to fewer gun deaths. But he adds this...

Professor JENS LUDWIG (Public Policy, University of Chicago): In general, 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.

SCHAPER: So Lugwig says 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.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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