Federal gun prosecutions in Chicago region lag despite shooting epidemic
By Sam Hart
May 1, 2017

Despite the epidemic of gun violence in Chicago, the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois has prosecuted far fewer gun cases in recent years than prosecutors in other urban areas, an Injustice Watch analysis shows.

The analysis raises questions about whether sufficient attention was devoted to fighting gun violence under former U.S. attorney Zachary T. Fardon, even as the routine incidents of gun violence in Chicago have become a matter of national concern.

In the last three years only 334 gun-related prosecutions* were filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in Chicago, a period during which 8,426 incidents of gun violence** were reported in Chicago alone.

By comparison 553 gun-related prosecutions were reported in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland in Baltimore, a period during which the Gun Violence Archive reported 2,638 incidents of violence in Baltimore, the largest city in that district.

In other words, while the Maryland district was filing one gun prosecution for every five incidents of gun violence in Baltimore, the Illinois district was filing one gun prosecution for every 25 incidents of gun violence in Chicago. Similar disparities were found comparing Chicago to St. Louis, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Houston.

To the president of the Chicago police board, those numbers are alarming. “At a time when the city of Chicago is in crisis, and the violence attributed to gun shootings and gun homicides is at historic highs, the federal government has to be at full capacity in this fight,” Lori Lightfoot said in an interview. “It’s hard to reconcile those very low numbers with the federal government being at full capacity in the fight to bring down violence in the city.”

The U.S. Justice Department in February accepted the resignations of all U.S. attorneys throughout the country, including Fardon. The office currently is directed by his former first-assistant U.S. attorney, now acting U.S. Attorney Joel R. Levin.

Levin’s spokesman Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Fitzpatrick declined comment. Fardon could not be reached for comment.

But Fardon in the past called such comparisons “apples-to-oranges,” saying the situation of each office is unique.

And in a March letter to the Chicago Sun-Times, Levin insisted that gun prosecutions are a priority to his office, and that the Northern District of Illinois has prosecuted more gun crimes in recent years than in decades past.

 No doubt, the issue of gun violence mattered to the office. In an open letter to the public following his resignation, Fardon wrote a scathing letter about the problem of gun violence. Among his points: “”If you want more federal gang and gun prosecutions, we need more full-time, permanent federal prosecutors in Chicago.”

Fardon noted the office was budgeted for 158 lawyers, compared to 172 at its peak. “This U.S. Attorney’s Office should have 15-20 more AUSAs immediately assigned to it, full time and permanent. It’s a travesty that the office remains understaffed since sequestration.”

But the Injustice Watch analysis shows other offices do more gun cases with fewer prosecutors. The U.S. District for Maryland, which prosecuted more than twice as many gun cases over the three-year period as the Northern District of Illinois, for example, reports a staff of 80 prosecutors in the district – about half as many positions.

Advocates of gun violence prevention say federal participation is necessary to combat violence in the city.

“Trafficking of guns into Chicago we know is a serious problem—the number of guns that are recovered in Chicago far outpaces the guns that are recovered in other cities around the country,” Director of the Gun Violence Prevention Program at the Joyce Foundation Nina Vinik said.

She added that priorities must be placed on addressing gun trafficking in Chicago. “That needs to come from all levels of government—from federal, state, and local authorities as well.”

Officials of the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington declined comment.

*For our investigation, we pulled all cases filed under statutes 18 U.S.C. § 922,  18 U.S.C. § 923, and 18 U.S.C. § 924.

**Our numbers for gun-related incidents are pulled from the Gun Violence Archive and comprise incidents including but not limited to what could be considered federal gun crimes. See their methodology here.

Find the dataset and our code for analyzing and visualizing it on our GitHub.