In Chicago and elsewhere, gun possession arrests are rising as shootings go unsolved.
By Lakeidra Chavis and Geoff Hing
In Chicago, the race to get guns off the street often begins with a police officer stop.
Officers just need a pretext to search someone: A man in a white Ford Sedan blocking an alleyway. A bulge in a fanny pack at the beach. A man breathing heavily in a black Chevrolet Malibu as police approached. The smell of “fresh cannabis” wafting from an open window. Tinted windows. A missing license plate. Police reports show that the list goes on.
This article was published in partnership with WBEZ and Chicago Sun-Times.
Authorities tout these arrests as an effective crime-fighting strategy. “Each gun recovered, regardless of how, is a potential life saved,” said former Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown in a press conference last year. It’s a common refrain repeated by officials from San Jose, California, to the small city of Utica, New York, as gun deaths rose across the country.
A Marshall Project analysis found that from 2010 to 2022, the police made more than 38,000 arrests for illegal gun possession. These arrests — almost always a felony — doubled during this timeframe. While illegal possession is the most serious offense in most of the cases we analyzed, the charges often bear misleading names that imply violence, like “aggravated unlawful use of a weapon.”
Recent research shows that most people convicted in Illinois for felony gun possession don’t go on to commit a violent crime, and the majority of those sentenced to prison for gun possession don’t have past convictions for violence. Instead, people who already committed violent crimes are more likely to do so again.
The racial disparities in this enforcement are glaring. Although Black people comprise less than a third of the city’s population, they were more than 8 in 10 of those arrested for unlawful possession in the timeframe we reviewed. The number of Black people arrested could fill every seat at a Chicago Bulls game and then some; the majority are men in their 20s and 30s.
The consequences of these arrests are long-lasting. If convicted, people face a year or more in prison, depending on the charges. Even without time behind bars, those we interviewed faced damning criminal records, time on probation, job loss, legal fees and car impoundments.
Officials justify the focus on confiscating guns — even if they are not being fired at anybody — as a way of curtailing violence. But these tactics have not substantially reduced shootings in Chicago. In fact, as possession arrests skyrocketed, shootings increased, but the percentage of shooting victims where someone was arrested in their case declined.
“Guns are not assembly-line cases, and they shouldn’t be treated as such,” says Chris Hudspeth, 31, who has been incarcerated for illegal gun possession. “I’m scared for my life — and I gotta go to prison because I fear for my life, for my family’s safety? Because we’re not fortunate enough to live someplace else?”
The Chicago Police Department did not respond to repeated requests for an interview, nor did they comment on findings The Marshall Project shared with them. Gun arrest practices rest with the next mayor, whom voters will choose in an upcoming runoff election. The options are stark: Brandon Johnson, a Black County commissioner pitching police reform, and Paul Vallas, a White perennial candidate and veteran education official backed by the city’s police union. Despite running on seemingly different platforms, both mayoral candidates are suggesting tough-on-gun policies to address public safety.
For this article, we read nearly 300 arrest reports to understand the tactics police use to find guns, and compiled decades of police data showing a history of discriminatory gun enforcement. We conducted more than 100 interviews with people navigating gun cases, researchers, attorneys, and community members. Our reporting focused on Chicago, given its struggles with gun violence despite strict firearm laws, but we identified several other cities with similar trends.
The Marshall Project found that widespread stops and gun possession arrests — and the inability of Chicago officials to show they are working — have parallels to other discredited strategies like “broken windows” policing, stop-and-frisk, and the war on drugs.
“People are for ‘gun control’ but against ‘mass incarceration,’” said James Forman Jr., a professor at Yale Law School and author of “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.” “They haven’t thought about how this particular form of gun control ends up helping to produce and sustain mass incarceration.”
In a country where guns are deeply intertwined with race, class and safety, discussions about them are often guided by politics and sensationalism. But as officials try to address street-level gun violence and prevent yet another mass shooting, it’s important to understand how firearm laws play out in reality, upending deeply ingrained assumptions about guns, who should have them, and how laws are enforced.
Elijah Hudson, a fully licensed gun owner, was arrested during an October 2022 traffic stop for refusing to disclose his gun to officers and having expired license plates. Hudson filed a complaint against police last December. JIM VONDRUSKA FOR THE MARSHALL PROJECT
On an unseasonably warm day last October, 29-year-old Elijah Hudson decided to drive to work rather than take the train. On his way to pick up his son from daycare that evening, he turned onto a wide stretch of road downtown before Chicago police pulled over his silver Hyundai Genesis for expired license plates, arrest reports show.
After he agreed to settle the ticket in court, body camera footage we reviewed of the arrest shows an officer asking Hudson, “What’s with the attitude?” and then asking if he was a licensed gun owner.
“I just don’t know what that has to do with expired license plates,” Hudson responded, not answering the officer’s question.
To legally purchase a gun and carry it in public, Illinois residents need two licenses: a firearm owner’s permit that costs $11 online and a concealed carry card. These licenses are referred to locally as a FOID and a CCL. Since Chicago has no gun ranges within the city, residents have to travel to the suburbs to participate in half of the legally required 16 hours of training. Altogether, the process can cost upward of $300 in fees and take several months.
If a person lacks both licenses — or has a gun owner’s card but not a concealed carry permit — they can be arrested for illegal gun possession.
Officers quickly became frustrated with Hudson, the footage shows, as he continued to question the relevancy of guns for the traffic stop.
“It has to do with all of our safeties. If there’s a firearm in this vehicle — all of our safeties are at risk now,” said an officer near the passenger side.
Hudson explained that his Smith & Wesson pistol was in a computer bag on the passenger-side floorboard. While he and an arresting officer standing near the driver’s side window debated over the stop, at least five additional police vehicles and nearly a dozen officers arrived on the scene.
“If he doesn’t have a FOID or CCL, I’m breaking the window — just letting you know,” another officer remarked while checking Hudson’s credentials. When a bystander told the police he was recording the interaction, police footage shows the initial officer retrieving Hudson’s unloaded gun from a police vehicle and then showing it off for the pedestrian to see.
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