I have been close to gun violence my entire life. Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I’ve seen my classmates carry firearms to keep themselves and their families safe from harm. And I later represented some of those same individuals in court—being prosecuted for firearm possession—when I started work as a public defender.
The people I knew growing up, and now the people I fight for in court, are also victims of gun violence themselves. I see those same people get arrested, prosecuted, and caged for the simple act of possessing a firearm—something protected and even exalted elsewhere in our country.
Last week, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the first major Second Amendment case in over a decade. The New York State Rifle and Pistol Association (NYSRPA) is calling on the court to strike down New York’s restrictive gun laws that allow people to be arrested, prosecuted, and imprisoned for possessing guns. Meanwhile, on the other side, New York was joined by progressive organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) in fighting to uphold the gun restrictions.
Yet spectators who expected to see the familiar, purely partisan divide on this highly charged issue would likely have been surprised to hear Paul Clement, former solicitor general for George W. Bush and the attorney for the NYSRPA, invoke an amicus brief during oral arguments by an unlikely ally: NYC public defenders. New York City defenders rightfully argued on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of people they represent that New York’s gun laws should be struck down because of their disproportionate and devastating impact on Black and brown communities.
As the leader of the Cook County Public Defender’s Office, which represents the majority of people accused of criminal offenses in Chicago and its suburbs, most of whom look like me, I stand with those defender offices. While I support policies that actually stem the flow of guns, prevent violence, and heal those who have been harmed, I also support ending the way we criminalize gun possession. I do this because there is no Second Amendment on the South Side of Chicago.
Despite the Second Amendment’s claimed protections—that have only expanded in the last 60 years—Black and brown men in New York, Chicago, and other localities around the country aren’t protected like white gun owners: We’re arrested, prosecuted, and warehoused in prisons. The questioning by Supreme Court Justices in the oral arguments underscores a major reason why: Guns in the hands of Black and brown people are seen as a threat to public safety, while in the hands of white gun owners they are viewed as an essential means of self-defense—a constitutional right. Embedded in the justices’ inquiries—full of racially coded language and myths about “high-crime areas” and “muggings”—was a false assumption that police keep communities safe and a dangerous distinction between “these people with illegal guns” (read: Black people living in cities) and “ordinary hardworking people” who have to commute home every night (read white people in the suburbs).
I have seen the harmful effects of this racist way of thinking throughout my childhood and career. It is those decades of experiences that lead me to side with the likely verdict of justices whose questioning in this case highlights so much of what is wrong with our legal system. As I assume this seemingly contradictory position, there are several stories I reflect on.
I think about a college classmate, who is Black. A licensed gun owner in another state, he was visiting family in Illinois—a state with different licensing laws. He left his licensed gun in his bag, which he put through the metal detector at a bar where he planned on watching the Air & Water Show. The bag set off the detector and my classmate was arrested and prosecuted for possession of a firearm. I became his public defender. Because of his arrest, he served time in jail, lost his job, and faced housing instability. The shame and trauma stay with him to this day.
I think about a man my office represents, a father of four kids and professional driver, who purchased a firearm after being caught in the cross fire of a shooting on the freeway. He was willing to do anything to keep himself and his family safe. But he was Black. Shortly after he started carrying a gun for his own protection, suburban police arrested him and prosecutors charged him with a felony for not having the right license.
I also think about the hundreds of young Black men my office represents every year, arrested and facing years in prison for simple possession of a gun because they were terrified, but didn’t have enough money, the wherewithal, or time to purchase a license. Often, they are denied a license because of a prior drug conviction—an obstacle to licensure that their white counterparts, far less likely to be arrested for drug possession than Black and brown Americans, do not face.
I think about how differently they would be treated by police and prosecutors if they were born a different color, lived in a different area of the state. Here’s the stark reality of injustice: Over 75 percent of firearm possession convictions in Illinois occur in Cook County, in a few Chicago neighborhoods.
Most critically, however, my office sees the profound and oppressive impact of disproportionate gun arrests on the people we represent. We see how, far from ending gun violence, this form of “gun control” completely undermines public health and safety. The people we serve face a dual threat: harm from a community awash in violence—and harm from a system awash in incarceration. And throughout it all, guns don’t disappear, and shootings continue.
The truth is, laws criminalizing gun possession not only devastate Black and brown communities; they also fail to achieve one of their primary objectives: reducing the supply of guns on our streets. As the Chicago Police Department seizes thousands of guns on the street, thousands more exist on the market and access to them remains far too easy.
I want my community rid of the tools that make conflicts more deadly, suicide attempts more lethal, and domestic violence more fatal. And at the same time, I want to see an end to the criminalization and mass incarceration of people whom I sat next to in kindergarten.
How do we do this? Before I was the Cook County public defender, I worked at the Illinois Justice Project on gun safety initiatives. There are ways to achieve gun safety that do not create more victims in the process. We need to reduce the flow and use of guns into communities, repeal gun industry immunity, educate all gun owners and possessors on safe use and storage, implement targeted buybacks, and prohibit manufacture of assault weapons, silencers, and high-capacity magazines.
We also need to invest in gun violence prevention and restorative justice initiatives. The Interrupters Model pays and trains trusted insiders of a community to anticipate where violence will occur and intervene before it erupts. They work with people at the highest risk for causing harm by offering alternatives to picking up a gun, and they meet with survivors to help them heal and move forward in their lives. These alternatives work: The two Chicago districts where the model was implemented saw a 31 percent drop in homicides and 19 percent in shootings. They are also significantly more cost-effective, especially when measured against outsize policing that has been proven by police statistics on gun violence not to work at all.
Such alternative solutions are not only effective; they are designed to repair harm in communities while avoiding the permanent punishment of a criminal record, which inhibits a person’s ability to get a job, educate themselves, or find housing
Until we pursue gun safety measures that serve every community and protect civil liberties, we will not be safer. The criminalization of gun possession across the country—from New York to Chicago—is unconstitutional and results in irreversible harm. I am tired of seeing my community broken by laws purported to fix a problem but that do nothing to actually address the problem. It is time for a new approach.