Biography of a Gun

FROM OUR ARCHIVES: Tracking the history of a gun used in a recent Chicago shooting provides a revealing account of how guns get into criminals’ hands, and how unapproved purchases easily evade the state’s gun-control laws.

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The four men charged in Ashlee Poole’s shooting have denied knowing anything about the gun. (They have all pleaded not guilty, and at press time their trial had not been scheduled.) The authorities cannot say how the gun might have ended up in their hands; the trail went cold at Frank. When agents went to where Edmondson claimed Frank lived, they didn’t find him and he remains a key missing link in the gun’s violent trail.

The other 12 guns Edmondson bought have not been located. Sergeant John Coghlan, who led the earnest but understaffed CAGE Team at the time of Edmondson’s arrest, predicts that it is only a matter of time until one or more of these weapons turn up in a crime.

There are some encouraging signs, however, that Chicago is making progress in its effort to combat the scourge of gun violence. The most significant improvement is that aggravated batteries with a firearm are down by nearly half—from 658 reported in the first quarter of last year to the 345 reported this year.

After Ashlee’s shooting and the fatal wounding six days later of 12-year-old Rene Guillen, who was hit by gang fire as he was leaving a neighborhood cleanup, police beefed up patrols in hot-spot areas, such as Englewood and the Back of the Yards, where Rene was killed.

What’s more, Sergeant Coghlan argues, the city has made progress with its intensified efforts to go after illegal gun sales and to catch felons carrying or using guns. When Coghlan began his stint at the CAGE unit three years ago, he says, “it was not that uncommon to see somebody traffic 20 or 30 guns” at a time. “Now, you’re getting down to people trafficking . . . usually under ten.”

More than anything else, most law enforcement officials and prosecutors applaud Project Safe Neighborhoods, a federal program that coordinates local, state, and federal efforts to deter and prosecute gun crime. The program combines tougher penalties for corrupt dealers and convicted felons caught with guns—in many cases a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years in federal prison, without parole—and a publicity campaign anchored by the slogan: “Felons with guns do Federal time. Lots of Federal time.”

Since the program began in Chicago in May 2002, federal prosecutors say, they have brought 201 cases against users of illegal guns and the people who supply them to criminals. In its first year alone, 170 cases were filed in federal court, compared with just 83 cases the previous year. In the four police districts where the program is most active, two on the West Side and two on the South Side, the number of homicides fell by 14 percent last year, compared with an 8-percent decrease in the city as a whole. Project Safe Neighborhoods was expanded to the South Side districts after Ashlee’s shooting.

In February this year, federal prosecutors announced they would more aggressively go after straw purchasers and gun traffickers (they had previously focused on users of illegal guns). Some critics say prosecutors should also target dirty gun shops, too. Since 1999, federal prosecutors in Illinois have brought cases against owners or employees of only four suburban gun shops; two ended in acquittals. But officials say criminals get most of their guns through straw purchases. “Even if you had gun shops that were totally clean, I would wonder how much effect you were having on the problem, if you still have a core of straw purchasers,” says David Hoffman, an assistant U.S. attorney who coordinates Project Safe Neighborhoods for the federal prosecutor’s office in Chicago.

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It has been more than a year since the Easter Sunday shootout. Sitting on the couch in her living room, Brenda Jordan reflects on that tragic day and the many difficult ones that have followed. “She’ll talk about it sometimes,” she says of Ashlee. “It’s mainly every Sunday, every other Sunday, she’ll talk about it. She’ll tell you, ‘Remember that Sunday when I was shot?’”

Ashlee, now a second grader, has recovered from most of her injuries, although her mother says she still has stomachaches and mild but chronic lower back pain. “She’ll wake up in the middle of the night, and I’ll spend two, three, four hours with her,” Jordan says. (A Chicago Sun-Times story on the case in late March said the medical costs of Ashlee’s care so far had come to about $40,000.)

In the months following the shooting, people would constantly ask Jordan if she planned to move out of the neighborhood or out of the house where she has lived since she was ten years old. “I’ve been here 32 years,” she says wistfully. “I’m not moving.” She sighs, then adds: “Ain’t no place safe. Nowhere is safe.”

When it comes to Chicago, Sergeant Coghlan is in grudging agreement. “As far as keeping guns out of the city of Chicago,” he says, “I have no idea how you’re ever going to stop that. You can try to control it, but as far as stopping it, I don’t know if that’ll ever happen.”

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