This article was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system. Sign up for their newsletters, and follow them on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
CHICAGO — In Chicago, the race to get guns off the street often begins with a police 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.
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.
But in Chicago, a town labeled as “ChiRaq,” a “war zone,” and a “murder capital,” gun enforcement overwhelmingly focuses on possession crimes — not use.
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 newly elected mayor, Brandon Johnson, whose campaign suggested 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.
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. All together, 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.
Once police confirmed that Hudson was, in fact, a fully licensed gun owner, they arrested him for refusing an officer’s order, refusing to disclose his gun, and for having expired license plates.
A judge dismissed his charges weeks later. “It was almost like an ‘aha!’ moment,” Hudson said in an interview. “What if they are predatorily stopping CCL owners, minority owners, and they’re trying to find ways to charge them with something so they can legally confiscate your firearm?”
In December, Hudson filed a complaint with the city’s police oversight agency and held a small press conference. “I want the officers to be disciplined, and I want people to see how they have a presumption of criminality if you’re dark-skinned in Chicago, and you have legal firearms,” he said.
Illegal possession charges make up the majority of gun arrests.
According to our analysis of these arrests from 2010 to 2022, White men were underrepresented, as were White women. Chicago’s population is roughly a third White, and nationwide surveys suggest gun ownership is far more common among men than women. But over the years of data we reviewed, Chicago police arrested fewer than 1,000 White men — and more than 1,500 Black women.
Hispanic men and women were also underrepresented. Although they also make up about one-third of the overall population, they account for a little over 1 out of every 10 arrested.
We found that Black people make up the majority of those arrested across Chicago, regardless of neighborhood demographics. Two areas that buck this trend include the city’s international airports, O’Hare and Midway, where Transportation Security Administration agents call police when someone brings a firearm through security. In these neighborhoods, White people were more likely to be arrested.
But even after decades of arrests and guns seized, research and crime data show that Black communities in Chicago still bear the brunt of gun violence. The majority of those killed are Black men in their 20s and 30s. When combined with persistent economic and chronic health inequities, Black residents’ lives are almost 10 years shorter on average than their non-Black counterparts. Defenders of the current tactics argue that because gun violence harms Black communities, the arrests for gun violence reflect not racial disparities in enforcement, but the reality of where violence takes place.
But Daniel Webster, a researcher who studies gun violence reduction at Johns Hopkins University, says possession cases shouldn’t overshadow larger problems like gun trafficking or illegal sales. He said it’s important to acknowledge the disparity in gun violence without justifying racial profiling.
“There’s a very small number of individuals in the communities most impacted by gun violence that are driving the violence,” Webster said. “Why would we not have enforcement of gun laws map on to that? But again, it doesn’t mean you need to stop and frisk everyone in the damn neighborhood.”
At the end of 2022, Chicago Police reported more than 12,700 gun seizures. Many of the firearms recovered were revolvers and pistols, not semi-automatic rifles or untraceable ghost guns, and they often originate from nearby suburban gun stores, where they were first legally purchased.
But there are many ways to acquire a gun beyond that. People we interviewed said they found firearms stashed underneath cars or behind trash bins. Some got them as gifts from family and friends, or bought them from people who steal guns or traffic them for money. These methods are often appealing to people who may not be able to legally buy a gun due to an age requirement, their criminal background or their mental health status.
As a result, getting guns off the street is like peering into an abyss: Thousands of guns spread across the city, with no record of where they exist or who has them beyond an initial sale receipt.
“How many legal and illegal guns in Chicago? I think everyone would like to know that,” said Kimberly Nerheim, a spokesperson for the Chicago Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives division.
Chicago’s current push to get guns off the street follows years of documented problems with some of the tactics its police use. A 2017 U.S. Department of Justice investigation reported that officers coerced residents into providing information on guns by dropping them off in dangerous areas. The Chicago Police Department has also faced lawsuits accusing officers of planting guns at crime scenes. Last year, a jury awarded a former police officer millions in a whistleblower lawsuit, which alleged that the Chicago police retaliated against her for raising concerns about a gun possession arrest.
Under Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who leaves office in May, arrests for violating the state’s weapons laws are among their highest in more than 25 years.
Lightfoot’s office did not respond to requests for comment. Johnson’s campaign said he would continue to crack down on illegal gun possession as mayor, including creating a specific police unit called the “Illegal Guns Department,” adding more detectives, and tracking guns coming from states with lax gun laws. His office did not directly address our findings on possession arrests.
“We must confront the violent crime that is paralyzing our neighborhoods while also eradicating the systemic racism that exists in American law enforcement,” a campaign spokesperson wrote in an email.
Chicago police can make thousands of arrests each year because courts have given them broad discretion on when they can stop and search someone for firearms.
To see what this looks like in practice, The Marshall Project requested public documents outlining the Chicago police strategy for seizing guns. The department told us there were no memos, presentations or reports available.
So we focused on more than 225 gun arrests conducted over last year’s Memorial and Labor Day weekends. We picked these holidays because they tend to have a heightened police presence.
We found that the overwhelming majority of those arrested were Black men. Most people had no arrest warrants out, nor were they on supervised release, probation or suspected of being in a gang. In most of the incidents we analyzed, police were not responding to 911 calls about a person with a gun.
In arrests where possession was the most severe charge — about 140 of the cases — we found that more than 7 in 10 began with a simple traffic violation. After this initial stop, police often used some other justification for a search.
Officers often did this by citing the smell of marijuana. Although Illinois legalized cannabis in 2020, smoking while driving is still prohibited.
In a third of the stops, we found the person arrested had their gun owner’s permit, but not the license that allowed carrying the loaded gun in public.
“People in the Black community have now started to teach themselves to just comply, just do what the officers want so you can stay alive,” said Takenya Nixon, an assistant public defender. “It completely negates the fact that you have constitutional rights, and that you do not have to allow an officer to search a car, and you are well within your rights to question an officer.”
These arrests have cascading consequences. For those arrested during a traffic stop, we found that more than a third had their cars impounded and faced a $2,000 city fee, in addition to the daily storage fees private companies impose.
The arrest reports show that many people were cooperative with police when they asked about guns, even if they hesitated to answer. In some cases, they told police they had the gun for safety.
“He has the firearm for protection due to him being shot and robbed in the past,” police noted after one arrest. “Arrestee related that he was shot at two Mondays ago in an attempt[ed] carjacking where he was the victim,” another report reads.
Following Memorial Day weekend, then-Superintendent Brown praised the gun arrests at a press conference.
“We’ve raced to take guns off the street because every gun, every single one taken off the street, is a life saved,” Brown said. “It’s a deadly force situation avoided.”
But we discovered that police stop a vast amount of people and find a miniscule amount of weapons. For instance, officers stopped more than 6,500 people from the Friday evening before Memorial Day through the following Monday. They confiscated about 130 guns in possession arrests.
“We have an incredible problem when it comes to gun violence, but our strategy is failing, and it’s making it worse,” said Sharone Mitchell Jr., the Cook County Public Defender. “Guilty or not, there’s a significant impact when it comes to really damaging, invasive police behavior.”
By the time Chris Hudspeth turned 30, he had spent the majority of his adult life incarcerated for illegal gun possession cases. He says he carried guns after witnessing gun violence at a young age.
“It was summertime and we were sitting on the porch and an argument broke out across the street. The dude pulled out a little gun and shot the man in the leg one time. The man sat down and smoked a cigarette and died,” he said.
The tragedies continued at age 15, when in the span of months, Hudspeth says his best friend was fatally shot and his father died.
“I can’t really explain the rage that I felt, but I just wanted revenge,” he said. “All my friends were joining gangs and a lot of shootings were going on. It kind of scared me…that’s when guns started getting for real.”
Hudspeth says he was first arrested for having a replica gun as a juvenile.
“I tried to go back to school. I ended up fighting and getting kicked out of school…and I was getting shot at left and right — all the time, for the mistakes that I made when I was a kid — so I ended up getting another gun,” he said.
At 23, he was arrested as an “armed habitual criminal,” under the state’s three-strikes law. He spent the remainder of his 20s behind bars.
“The knowledge of how to properly acquire a firearm in [these] types of neighborhoods is slim to none. You get guns floating around freely and nobody educates you,” he said. “I’d never in my life heard of a [gun owners’ permit] until I went to prison.”
Some of the Black men we interviewed had records of serious crimes, including domestic violence. Others had previous gun possession cases or told us police had stopped them before to search for firearms. For some, it was their first arrest.
Most of the people we interviewed about their arrests did not want to be named because they feared it would affect their ongoing cases or forever stigmatize them.
“I’m not really able to work because the day I was arrested I was in the middle of an Uber Eats order, and they got notified that I was arrested with a gun,” one 32-year-old man who did not want to be named wrote in an email. “I can no longer work with them, and my car got daily tow holding fees, and now I’m being evicted. So that one traffic stop pretty much ruined my life.”
At the time of his arrest, the man had a firearm owner’s card but not a concealed carry permit. He was charged with “aggravated unlawful use of a weapon,” but more than six months later, he agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor with probation.
Sometimes the arrests are more complicated.
On a summer day in 2021, Chris Collins, then 33, planned on taking an Amtrak train to his sister and niece in Milwaukee, but missed it by minutes. While waiting for the next train to arrive, an Amtrak police dog named Nana stopped next to him — likely smelling the three bags of marijuana in his backpack. Collins’ case was transferred to the Chicago Police Department, where they charged him with two counts of “unlawful use of a weapon” and felony drug possession.
His sister said the gun was hers and that she left it in Chicago while visiting family. She had asked Collins to return it, according to legal documents.
More than a year after his arrest, his case was dismissed, but he says the incident affected his ability to seek legal gun ownership. Records show that the Illinois State Police, the state agency that oversees gun licenses in the state, denied Collins’ gun permit application two days after his arrest.
“I’m actually out here scared every day — going to work, coming from work — there’s killings going on every single day,” Collins told us. “One of my friends that I grew up with, her little sister just got killed a couple of days ago.”
For Hudspeth, a father of two, including a 6-month-old baby girl, trying to keep life on track is difficult. Next month marks his longest time out of prison in years.
“I don’t go out. I don’t go to clubs. I don’t go to bars. I don’t go to birthday parties. I don’t do anything,” he said. “I can’t even live my life because I’m still living in fear, and I have to essentially be a hermit to keep from going to jail, honestly.”
He says he understands why police try to take so many guns off the street — but he doesn’t think it’s effective.
“First of all, there’s too many illegal guns on the street. If there was full gun regulation, then that would make sense, but you have criminals running around with guns. You want me to live amongst criminals, thieves, robbers and murderers and not have anything to protect myself [with]?,” he said.
Chicago isn’t alone in its practices. We found major racial disparities in enforcement in cities across the country, despite differences in gun laws and homicide rates.
In New York City, which has some of the strictest gun laws in the country, our analysis found that in the past decade, Black people were almost 70% of those arrested for gun possession, despite being about 20% of the city’s population. In a recent press release, the police department noted that, as of last year, gun arrests are at a nearly 30-year high.
In Houston, where few would blink at the sight of a pistol in a pair of Levis, data shows that arrests for illegal possession jumped more than 70% between 2019 and 2021. Black people comprised more than 60% of those arrested, despite making up less than a quarter of the city’s residents. These arrests have skyrocketed even as Texas continues to roll back gun-control measures.
In Cleveland, where last summer the state made it legal to carry a concealed gun without a permit, arrests for weapons-related charges hit a decade-high in 2021, with Black people accounting for nearly 90% of those arrested.
The Houston, Cleveland, Baltimore and Memphis police departments did not respond to our findings. In a statement, the NYPD said it did not engage in “racially-based” enforcement and that policing efforts are based on several factors, including where crime is concentrated. The Philadelphia Police Department said the agency has piloted programs to limit racial disparities in “low-level” arrests following a 2011 class-action settlement about stop-and-frisk tactics.
Reports show that these patterns exist at the federal level, too.
“The police use these measures without engaging in any kinds of efforts to determine whether they work, and they’ve used them for decades and decades and decades,” says Aziz Huq, a law professor at the University of Chicago, who co-wrote a report on race and gun laws last year.
Studies have shown that policing targeting specific high-violence areas can lead to reductions in violence. However, the effects are limited to the cities and time periods that researchers study. Even researchers who found that arrests and gun seizures reduced crime raised concerns about how police casting an overly-wide net in Black communities can sow distrust or result in misconduct.
Researchers, attorneys and advocates we spoke with repeatedly compared the United States’ approach to gun violence to the war on drugs, a failed, decades-long endeavor to reduce drug use. Tough-on-crime policies and tactics like stop-and-frisk searches landed disproportionately on Black communities and sent incarceration rates soaring.
“All of this is really just flavors of the ‘war on crime.’ That’s the dynamic and that’s the danger here,” said Benjamin Levin, an associate law professor at the University of Colorado.
Disproportionate arrests of Black people for gun possession don’t directly address the violence that captivates headlines and moves policy: major mass shootings in schools, stores, houses of worship and nightclubs. Surveys and research show that this violence is often perpetrated by White men who planned their crimes in advance with legally purchased weapons.
Following a mass shooting in a wealthy, White suburb north of Chicago last year, Illinois lawmakers passed an assault weapons ban. Sheriffs across the state, many overseeing majority-White counties, are refusing to enforce the new law, and Illinois is facing several lawsuits over the ban’s constitutionality.
“The sickness of American gun culture is that we have conditioned everyone to believe that safety comes at the trigger of a gun, and it’s just not true,” said Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx. “So the culture tells us that everybody needs a gun. There are barriers about who gets a gun, thus, there are disparities in who gets charged with them and who has the privilege to have them.”
A few weeks before last Christmas, Bertha Purnell sat in a dingy Chicago courtroom, anxious and angry.
Her 28-year-old son Maurice was fatally shot less than a mile from her home on the city’s West Side nearly six years before. After the murder, she retired as a nurse, created her own nonprofit, and became a victims’ rights activist and a member of Moms Demand Action, a gun policy advocacy group.
Purnell said that even before her son was killed, she opposed illegal gun ownership.
“If we’re allowing people to carry guns illegally, [like] people who have psychiatric problems, we’re only adding to the problem,” she said. “We have to somehow get a hold, to make sure that guns are carried legally and people are responsible gun owners.”
On this cloudy morning in December, she sat on a bench, mostly still, as a judge sentenced her son’s murderer to 20 years in prison. Only her jittering feet gave her nerves away.
“I get a little peace knowing that this person can’t hurt anyone else,” Purnell said during the hearing. “I have to settle for what the system [deems] fair.”
Although an average of more than 3,000 people are shot in Chicago each year, the type of justice Purnell experienced is fleeting for most. Since 2010, records show police have failed to make an arrest in more than 8 in 10 shootings.
Our analysis found that police often step up gun possession enforcement following spikes in violence. The shift in tactics is stark. At the beginning of 2010, fewer than half of gun arrests involved cases where possession was the most serious offense. As of last year, they now account for more than 80% of arrests with a gun — even as homicides remain their highest in decades.
“Since 2020, we have seen an uptick in shootings and violent crime. [That] would then lead one to believe that the people who just are possessing guns are the ones who are shooting guns,” Foxx said, adding that possession arrests “don’t correlate” with homicides, since most shootings remain unsolved.
Records show that nearly 60% of the 31,000 new felony cases pursued by Foxx’s office in the past three years were for illegal gun possession; roughly 4% were for homicides.
Kevin Scott worked as a Chicago police detective for more than two decades before retiring last year. He says solving violent crimes is harder than making weapons possession arrests because detectives have to compile several types of evidence to prove guilt, including witness statements, fingerprints and security camera footage.
Finding witnesses is particularly difficult, says Scott. “Some people, if they’re not fearful of retaliation, maybe they have a distrust for the legal system itself,” he said.
Scott sees the department’s high number of gun possession arrests and its low number of shooting arrests as separate issues because the cases are handled by two different types of officers.
“There’s so many other hoops you have to jump through to determine if someone even committed the crime of murder versus someone [who] had a gun on them,” he said. “You can arrest somebody with a gun all day long.”
Like many police departments, Chicago employs more street patrol officers than detectives focused on solving violent crime: For every 18 patrol officers on the force, there is just one detective.
For Purnell, the issue of guns in Chicago prompts an endless list of questions. She doesn’t understand how so many firearms seem to make it into the city, how so many young people can afford them, and how they intend to use them. At one point, she worried that people were using a tree near her home as a stash spot for illegal guns.
“We get so many guns in our area. Where do they come from? Our children can buy them; [but they] don’t have the money to buy them. So someone is putting them in our children’s hands,” she said. “It’s almost as if they’re trying to get rid of the race. If they’re all locked up or in jail, then what? We’ll be extinct in a minute.”
Despite these anxieties, her views on gun ownership are unwavering. “If you feel like you need to protect yourself, then you need a legal gun,” Purnell said. “I just can’t see justifying illegal guns. I cannot see it.”
On a recent weekday afternoon, more than a dozen people, many of them Black, sat quietly waiting for the felony bond hearing at the county courthouse to begin. The hearing often marks the next step in the legal process after an arrest.
Like most days, gun possession was on the docket.
The cases included a 30-year-old military veteran facing an “aggravated unlawful use of a weapon” charge after police found a gun in the center console of his car. He was initially stopped for not wearing a seatbelt.
In another incident, police arrested a 35-year-old father of four after noticing a bulge in his waistband and smelling “a strong odor of burnt cannabis.” The man was a passenger in a car officers pulled over for lacking registration plates.
Records show both men have their gun owners’ permits, but lacked concealed carry licenses.
One mother left the courtroom overwhelmed after her 18-year-old son’s hearing.
Police stopped the high school student, who was driving without a license, for double-parking his mother’s car on a residential street. The arrest report shows after officers smelled a “strong odor” of marijuana, they searched the car and found a pistol with an extended magazine and laser sight.
His mother said that he recently started working at a fast-food restaurant and she didn’t believe the gun was his. “He’s a good kid. He goes to school. He’s trying to do something with his life,” she said.
As tears rolled down her face, she worried about how her family would gather the $500 needed to pay his bond, and how she would afford the thousands in fines to retrieve her impounded car.
It was his first arrest.
After several attempts, including as recently as last week, the Chicago Police Department did not respond to our reporting findings.
“Already this year, officers have recovered 1,769 guns — an average of more than 29 guns taken off the street every single day since the year began,” the department said in its February crime update. The monthly report attributed the arrests, in part, to a decline in shootings.
The Marshall Project spent just over a year reporting this story. In that time, more than 3,200 people were shot in Chicago and more than 600 died from their injuries. They were shot while trick-or-treating, saying goodbye to their children, or sitting in a grocery store parking lot.
Police have made an arrest in less than one in five of their cases.
Lakeidra Chavis is a staff writer for The Marshall Project. She has written on wide-ranging topics including the rise in Black suicides during the pandemic, the changing structure of gangs, the opioid crisis and victim compensation. Lakeidra previously reported at The Trace, ProPublica Illinois and NPR stations in Chicago and Alaska. She lives in Chicago, Illinois.
Geoff Hing is a data reporter for The Marshall Project. He has worked as part of investigative, data and news applications teams in a number of newsrooms, including The Arizona Republic, APM Reports and The Chicago Tribune. Geoff lives in Phoenix, Arizona.