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Shortly before five in the afternoon on Easter Sunday last year, seven-year-old Ashlee Poole sat on the front steps of her home, eating jellybeans with her cousin Pierre, who lives upstairs in the two-flat residence their families share in the city’s West Englewood neighborhood.
It had been a typical Easter holiday for Ashlee and her family: services at St. Matthew’s A.M.E. Church in suburban Summit and an early supper.
Brenda Jordan, 42, Ashlee’s mother, soon joined the youngsters on the porch. A single mother who works five days a week in the housekeeping department at Harrah’s casino and hotel in Joliet, Jordan savored the chilly air and the few precious moments of downtime in her busy life. The streets at that moment were peaceful, unusual for this South Side neighborhood so accustomed to gang violence. But the quiet wouldn’t last long. “I heard ‘Pow!’ ‘Pow!’ ‘Pow!’ ‘Pow,’” Jordan says. “I told the kids, ‘They’re shootin’—get in the house.’”
Bullets were flying around them. “You could hear the gunshots whizzing by,” Jordan recalls. She held open the front storm door for the kids. Pierre made it safely inside. Ashlee fell before she could make it to the vestibule. Jordan says, “I kept telling her, ‘Get up, Ashlee, get up!’”
But Ashlee had been struck in her midsection by a nine-millimeter bullet. “I dragged her into the hallway,” Jordan says. “She was still crying, saying she couldn’t move her legs.” Jordan noticed a small, bleeding gash on the back of one of Ashlee’s legs. “I rolled her over and the back part of the bullet fell out on the floor.” The bullet had torn through her little body—entering on her right side and exiting on her left, seriously damaging her colon and both her kidneys and nicking her spine.
“She told my mother, ‘Grandma, I’ve been shot,’” Jordan recalls. “And she was crying. Then she said a prayer; she was asking the Lord to have mercy on her, not to let her die.”
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By the Good Friday before the shooting, Chicago had already counted 145 murders in 2003, most involving guns. By the end of the year, with 598 killings in all—484 of them involving firearms—Chicago reigned as the nation’s murder capital. Although the number of murders has been declining—last year was the first time since 1967 there were fewer than 600—Chicago still had the most homicides of any city in the country, including New York City (596) and Los Angeles (505), which have larger populations. “The gun problem in Chicago has probably been worse as far as volume than anywhere else in the country,” says Mike Smith, a supervisor in the Cook County state’s attorney’s office.
Paradoxically, Chicago and the state of Illinois have some of the strongest gun control laws in the nation. Since 1983, it has been illegal for most people to possess or sell a handgun in Chicago (except for law enforcement personnel, corrections officers, and some licensed private security guards). Most states require a permit to buy a firearm. Illinois is one of only three states that require anyone to obtain a firearm owner’s identification (FOID) license from the state police—not only to buy a firearm of any kind, but also to possess one. (For a FOID card, which costs $5 and typically takes several days to acquire, a buyer must meet ten federal guidelines, including age—21, for now—no record as a convicted felon, and no dishonorable discharge from the military.) Illinois also requires purchasers to wait 72 hours to buy a gun, unlike in most states, which use the federal “instant check” system, where guns can be obtained within minutes.
Still, the city is awash in guns. Over the past ten years, the Chicago Police Department says, it has recovered 128,064 firearms. No one knows how many more thousands of illegal handguns saturate Chicago streets. “It’s the same thing, I guess, as Prohibition,” says John Coghlan, a sergeant who spent three years in the Chicago Police Department’s gun unit. “You couldn’t have beer or booze, and that was prevalent everywhere. If somebody wants a gun, how do you actually stop him?”
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Ashlee Poole survived being shot and is extraordinarily lucky to be alive. She was rushed to University of Chicago Children’s Hospital, where she had emergency surgery to remove an inch of her damaged colon. “This neighborhood was just devastated,” her mother says. After the news had spread about Ashlee’s shooting, a crowd of some 50 people filled the street in front of their home. “I saw people get to the house and just break down.”
As the community grieved, police investigators interviewed witnesses and scoured the area for clues. The shooting apparently grew out of a dispute on the street. After the tussle, one of the men came back with a gun and started firing. Witnesses described seeing the suspects in a blue Chevy Astro van, and officers found such a vehicle abandoned at 63rd and Wood streets, about three blocks from the crime. Inside, authorities say, they found two handguns: a Taurus nine-millimeter and a Fratelli Tanfoglio TA90, a nine-millimeter semiautomatic pistol. The stray bullet that hit Ashlee, investigators later determined, had been fired from the Italian-made Tanfoglio, serial number G20467.
Number G20467 is just one of thousands of guns that have flooded Chicago’s underbelly. Its story illustrates the ease with which gangbangers, drug dealers, and other criminals can obtain firearms. The record of its life illustrates how U.S. and local gun laws work to protect the public—or, as in this instance, do not.
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Photograph: Tyllie Barbosa / Gun courtesy of U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives