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
Although she has recovered from most of her physical injuries, seven-year-old Ashlee Poole is still working through the trauma she suffered. "Remember that Sunday when I was shot?" she frequently asks her mother.
Although the vast majority of crime guns enter Chicago illegally, nearly all the firearms recovered from crimes here (including G20467) are first bought legally, from federally licensed dealers. "All guns start out in the legal market," says special agent Thomas Ahern, a spokesman for the Chicago division of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). "Somewhere down the line they get into the wrong hands." The journey for G20467 began in Brescia, Italy, at the mouth of the Trompian Valley between Milan and Venice, more than 4,500 miles and one ocean removed from Chicago’s South Side. For centuries, the hilly Brescia region has been a firearms hub, particularly since 1526, when the renowned family business Fabbrica d’Armi Pietro Beretta, the world’s longest-operating gunsmithy, was founded.
Today the Brescia-based Fratelli Tanfoglio is one of Italy’s most prolific handgun producers. Number G20467 was one of the TA90-model pistols manufactured by the company in 1983, coincidentally the same year Chicago instituted its ban on handgun possession. With its sleek nickel–steel alloy frame and matte chrome finish, the TA90 is as menacing looking as it is lethal. A Para. caliber, 15-round nine-millimeter magazine loads into the chamber. It measures about eight inches long and weighs more than two pounds, and it fires as quickly as the user can squeeze the trigger. Although the TA90 has been discontinued, the Blue Book of Gun Values, a pricing guide, says an unused model today typically retails at around $365. ATF data indicate Chicago police traced 23 Tanfoglio firearms last year, a fraction of the thousands of guns eventually connected to crimes.
Most of the guns brought illegally into Chicago do not have to travel as far as G20467. In 2001, U.S. manufacturers forged 623,070 pistols, 320,143 revolvers, 1,284,554 rifles, 679,813 shotguns, and 56,367 machine guns. No one knows the exact number of guns in America today, but by some estimates, there are as many guns as there are people. There are more than eight times as many dealers with federal firearms licenses in the United States (116,000) as McDonald’s restaurants (13,500). In Illinois alone there are approximately 2,200 firearms license holders.
Although the sale of handguns is illegal in Chicago, the city is ringed by a handful of gun shops, some just blocks from the city limits. Altogether, there are 441 federally licensed dealers in suburban Cook County and the five collar counties, according to the latest ATF data. Most of these suburban shops, officials say, are law-abiding businesses that operate responsibly. But a small percentage—fewer than 1 percent, the city says—are responsible for nearly half of all the firearms used in crimes in Chicago. Similarly, a small group of wholesalers are the principal suppliers of these so-called dirty dealers; 6 percent of wholesalers furnish 79 percent of all guns used in crimes in the city, according to information from the ATF’s National Tracing Center.
One south suburban store, for example, is especially notorious. In a recent four-year period, according to analysis of ATF figures by the Washington, D.C.–based not-for-profit Americans for Gun Safety Foundation, Chuck’s Gun Shop in Riverdale sold more guns linked to crimes than any other licensed gun dealer in the nation. Citing ATF records, the group reported last January that Chuck’s sold 2,370 guns between 1996 and 2000 that were recovered by police and traced to crimes. (The shop’s manager, John Riggio, says of the report, "You can do a lot of things with numbers. That’s all I’m going to say.") Thirteen other gun dealers in the state—all but two were from Chicago’s suburbs—were ranked by the Americans for Gun Safety Foundation among the top 120 dealers nationwide in supplying guns to criminals. Seven northwest Indiana gun shops also made the list.
The most common sources of guns used in crimes, the ATF reports, are "straw purchasers," individuals with valid firearm owner’s identification cards who have passed criminal background checks and can buy guns legally, but do so on behalf of others. In most straw-purchase situations, Mike Smith says, a shill—typically a drug user, perhaps a family member or girlfriend with a clean criminal record—buys a gun and either gives it or resells it to someone else. Prohibited purchasers are mainly convicted felons, gang members, drug dealers, and juveniles.
Six years ago, Mayor Richard M. Daley authorized the Chicago Police Department to investigate Chicago-area gun stores to see if retailers were knowingly selling firearms to criminals and straw purchasers. Over three months, cops posing as gang members, motorcycle toughs, and right-wing militia types bought 171 handguns from 12 suburban gun shops. The officers reported that the dealers routinely ignored obvious straw deals or apparently dangerous purchasers. In one case, a clerk at B & H Sports, Ltd., a gun shop in Oak Lawn that is now out of business, allegedly sold a weapon to an officer who said he needed it to retaliate against someone who owed him money. "You made a good choice," the clerk told him after selling him the firearm, according to police documents. "This will take care of business."
The sting became the basis for a $433-million public nuisance suit filed by the city in November 1998 against 22 gunmakers, four distributors, and the 12 suburban gun shops. The lawsuit, which seeks to recover the immense costs the city has incurred because of illegal guns, was dismissed by a circuit court in December 2000, but the city has appealed to the state supreme court.
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A typical shooting investigation takes two tracks: A team of homicide or violent-crime detectives tries to determine who pulled the trigger; if a firearm is recovered, a second set of investigators from the Chicago Anti-Gun Enforcement (CAGE) Team tries to establish who supplied the firearm to the shooter (and whether the transaction was legal).
Within days of Ashlee’s shooting, police had arrested four alleged gang members—Jimmie Jones Jr., 18; Lennar Jackson, 18; Montreal Thomas, 26; and Michael Ruffin, 27—in connection with the crime. All were charged with various counts of attempted murder, aggravated battery with a firearm, and unlawful possession. Jones and Jackson, who prosecutors allege were the ringleaders, were indicted on 19 counts each. Thomas was charged on nine counts, and Ruffin on 13.
Police accounts and court records say the shooting developed as follows: Jones had been hanging out with his girlfriend at her home across the street from Ashlee’s house, when some neighborhood men approached him. The meeting escalated to confrontation as one man, authorities say, grabbed Jones’s gold chain, breaking it, and then threw dirt and debris into his car. Humiliated, Jones met up with Jackson, Thomas, and Ruffin at 64th and Paulina streets to discuss retaliation, according to the assistant state’s attorney who is working on the case.
The foursome, riding in Thomas’s blue Astro, allegedly pulled up to 61st and Wood streets and spotted their antagonists loitering around the corner store not far from Ashlee’s home on Hermitage Avenue. Then everything went haywire—about 20 rounds of haywire, according to police records.
The gun numbered G20467 was found three days later in the blue van and taken to the Illinois State Police forensics lab at Damen Avenue and Roosevelt Road. To track the history of a suspicious firearm, CAGE agents contact the ATF National Tracing Center in Falling Waters, West Virginia, which searches for the origins of the majority of guns recovered after being used in crimes. In 2003, the center tracked the history of about 280,000 guns nationwide, including 6,542 in Chicago.
Housed in a former Internal Revenue Service warehouse, the tracing center has a state-of-the-art appearance on the outside, but inside it is a sprawling storage room, filled with 400 million records documenting gun imports and purchases. Many are stored on microfiche or on sheets of paper in cardboard boxes. "Remember that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark?" one officer asks, referring to the movie’s famous final moment—a wide-angle shot of a gigantic storehouse filled with endless rows of seemingly identical wood crates. "That’s what it looks like."
Despite its archaic methods, the bureau can trace a gun by the serial number from its manufacturer to an importer or a wholesaler to the first retailer and finally to its initial owner. Routine traces can take two weeks or more. For most violent gun crimes, agents can request an urgent trace, which is usually completed within 24 hours.
CAGE agents learned that the trail of G20467 led from Italy to Excam, a firearms importer in Hialeah, Florida, then to Valley Gun Distributors in Northridge, California, on March 16, 1989. The gun was transferred the same day to Interstate Arms Corporation in Ontario, California. On March 29th, G20467 arrived in Illinois, at the Calumet City Gun Shop. More than 11 years passed before the Tanfoglio landed on June 19, 2000, at Pelcher’s Shooters Supply, a gun shop in south suburban Lansing. (Those 11 years will remain a mystery due to recently passed legislation that bars all information regarding crime gun traces from being placed in the public record. See "The Trail Grows Cold," page 85.) ATF records indicate that George Edmondson, a 24-year-old telephone repairman from south suburban Burnham, bought the gun at Pelcher’s on February 16, 2001. It is not clear what Edmondson paid, or even whether the gun had ever been used at that point.
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Photograph: Suzy PolinG
It took CAGE agents more than a month to make the connection to Edmondson, because someone mistyped the gun’s serial number during the initial computer trace. But the investigation quickly gained momentum. Working with the state police, CAGE initiated a firearms transfer inquiry program, known as an F-TIP, which reveals the number of guns bought by a FOID card holder. As it turned out, Edmondson had bought 13 firearms between August 2000 and September 2002, all of them from suburban gun shops. None of the guns had been reported lost or stolen, according to a computer check.
On May 21, 2003, at around 2 p.m., a group of five officers knocked on the door of the house where Edmondson lived with his mother and asked the whereabouts of the weapons, in particular the Tanfoglio. Startled and nervous, Edmondson at first said he had sold the weapons, according to the written confession he made later to police. The agents pressed for documentation of the sales, required by state law. "That’s when he broke down," says a CAGE Team arresting officer, who requested anonymity. Edmondson was charged with gunrunning, a felony that carries a potential sentence of up to ten years in prison. In his written statement, Edmondson admitted he sold the weapons to men he knew were gang members.
A former student at DeVry University who spent a year as a low-ranking Black Disciples gang "foot soldier," Edmondson had loose ties to various gang members around his neighborhood. He told authorities he typically sold guns to the gangs in exchange for marijuana and cash. The Tanfoglio was sold for $325 to an alleged gang member whom Edmondson claimed to know only as Frank, a drug dealer for the gang. According to the confession, Edmondson instructed Frank to scrape off the serial number "if he was going to go out and do some crazy stuff."
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Pelcher’s Shooters Supply, a tiny stucco building tucked behind a TV and video store just off Ridge Road, the main drag in downtown Lansing, sits about 25 miles from the Loop and is a quick drive from Edmondson’s Burnham home. Edmondson bought six of his 13 guns at Pelcher’s, according to ATF trace data. Taped to the front of a glass counter inside Pelcher’s, a small poster warns purchasers: "Don’t lie for the other guy. Purchase a gun for someone who can’t and buy yourself 10 years in jail."
Posters notwithstanding, there is very little a gun dealer can do to stop a straw purchaser like George Edmondson from what authorities call lying and buying. He presented a valid FOID card. On the standard firearms transaction record, a form known as a 4473, required for all gun purchases from licensed dealers, he answered yes to the question "Are you the actual buyer of the firearm listed on this form?" He signed a second waiver required by Pelcher’s and passed a criminal background check.
"We do more checks and balances than the Bank of America," says Larry Pelcher, the 53-year-old owner of Pelcher’s, which has been in business for 28 years. Pelcher, whose shop is not among the dozen being sued by the city, says he has done nothing illegal and denies even selling the gun to Edmondson. He claims that Edmondson bought the Tanfoglio at another shop, Firearms Unlimited, in Hammond, Indiana, and had it transferred to Pelcher’s, which did the background check. ATF data do not support Pelcher’s claims, but information from the Indiana gun shop is unavailable; it closed shortly after its owner, Frank Freund, was murdered during a robbery of his shop in March 2000.
Gun dealers are not legally liable for straw-purchase sales if they reasonably believe the buyer is the real owner. But a study released last June by researchers from the University of California at Los Angeles school of public health found half of 120 gun dealers surveyed nationwide admitted they would sell a handgun to someone they knew was a straw purchaser. Pelcher says he has turned down buyers he suspected were straw purchasers. He claims he has also alerted local police and ATF agents to possible straw-purchase attempts at his store. He says he can’t be blamed if the guns he sells legally end up in the hands of criminals. "I’m not the bad guy. I’m the good guy," he says. "I don’t want the bad guys to get guns."
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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."