Loyola University Chicago

College of Arts & Sciences

Press Release - July 14, 2021

Enforcement of Gun Possession Laws Varies Widely by Race and Geography

Study from Loyola University Chicago’s Center for Criminal Justice Research, Policy and Practice, in the most comprehensive analysis yet of sentencing for gun possession in Illinois, raises questions of equity and effectiveness

CHICAGO – July 14, 2021 - Researchers from Loyola University Chicago found that enforcement of stricter gun possession laws in Illinois varies widely by geography and race, and incarceration for felony gun possession has risen sharply in recent years. Nearly two-thirds of convictions in Illinois for crimes involving a firearm are for simple possession of a firearm, not for the use of a firearm in the commission of a violent crime. 

The two-year study conducted by Loyola’s Center for Criminal Justice Research, Policy and Practice is the most comprehensive and detailed analysis of sentencing for gun possession offenses in Illinois, and David Olson, who co-directs Loyola’s Center said “it calls into question the equity of enforcement and sentencing as well as the effectiveness of tougher mandatory sentences in reducing violent crime.” 

“The narrative has been that these laws and mandatory prison sentencing requirements target ‘violent gun offenders.’ These analyses found that most of those incarcerated have not been convicted of acts of gun violence, most have never been previously convicted of a violent crime, and most do not commit violent crimes after completing their sentences,” said Garien Gatewood, Director of the Illinois Justice Project. The Illinois Justice Project engages in criminal justice reform efforts that promote policies that make communities safer and reduce recidivism. 

Illinois has seen a substantial increase in the number of people sentenced to prison for firearm possession offenses, reflecting both an increase in arrests for these crimes and the fact that most of them carry mandatory prison sentences. As a result, the researchers say, large and increasing numbers of people are sentenced for Class 2 and 3 felony charges of a felon in possession of a firearm, even though most of them do not have convictions for prior violent crimes on their record. In most cases, the previous felony conviction impacting sentencing is for non-violent crimes, such as drug-law violations, property offenses, or prior firearm possession offenses.

Despite the increases and the imposition of stricter mandatory sentences, little research has been done on the patterns and effectiveness of enforcement and sentencing, said Don Stemen, co principal investigator on the project and Chair of the Criminal Justice and Criminology Department at Loyola.  In research supported by the Joyce Foundation, he and his colleagues analyzed data from the Criminal History Record Information database maintained by the Illinois State Police, as well as information from the Illinois Department of Corrections and the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office.

Among the report’s findings:

  • Out of all arrests and convictions in Illinois for firearm-related offenses over the past decade, the vast majority were not for violent offenses carried out with a gun; 72 percent have been for firearm possession, while 28 percent were for discharge of a weapon or use of a firearm in the commission of a violent crime.
  • The majority of firearm possession convictions in Illinois occur in Cook County, are disproportionately concentrated in a few Chicago neighborhoods, and primarily involve Black men.
  • Increased arrests for illegal gun possession, and mandatory prison sentences for most of the offenses, meant that incarceration for these crimes increased 27 percent between 2014 and 2019, a period when incarceration for all other crimes fell 38 percent.
  • Of those firearm possession offenses where prison is not mandatory, people convicted in Cook County were more likely to be sentenced to prison than in the rest of Illinois.
  • The majority of those sentenced to prison for firearm possession do not have prior convictions for violent crimes, and the vast majority of those sentenced for firearm possession were not arrested for violent crimes during the three year period they were tracked following their release from prison or placement on probation.

“Given the substantial cost associated with prison relative to probation, mandatory prison sentences now required under Illinois law for most firearm possession crimes should be reconsidered,” said Olson. “For example, rather than everyone with a prior felony conviction possessing a firearm receiving a mandatory prison sentence, criteria should focus more narrowly on those related to risk of recidivism involving violence, such as prior convictions for specific types of violent crimes.”

Quintin Williams from the Joyce Foundation, which supported the research effort, said, “The research shows that current justice system responses to gun offenses are ineffective in reducing violence and making communities safer. To better promote public safety, we need to address the underlying reasons for gun possession, as well as explore appropriate interventions for these young men.”

The full report can be accessed here.

The Center for Criminal Justice Research, Policy, and Practice at Loyola University Chicago promotes fair, informed, effective and ethical approaches to criminal justice policy and practice through collaborative interdisciplinary research and evaluation, professional leadership development, and targeted projects designed to bring about systemic improvements in Illinois’ criminal justice system.

About Loyola University Chicago
Founded in 1870, Loyola University Chicago is one of the nation’s largest Jesuit, Catholic universities, with more than 16,600 students. Nearly 11,500 undergraduates call Loyola home. The University has four campuses: three in the greater Chicago area and one in Rome, Italy, as well as course locations in Saigon-Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Vernon Hills, Illinois (Cuneo Mansion and Gardens); and a Retreat and Ecology Campus in Woodstock, Illinois. The University features 14 schools, colleges, and institutes, including Arrupe College of Loyola University Chicago, College of Arts and Sciences, Graduate School, Institute of Environmental Sustainability, Institute of Pastoral Studies, Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing, Parkinson School of Health Sciences and Public Health, Quinlan School of Business, School of Communication, School of Continuing and Professional Studies, School of Education, School of Law, School of Social Work, and Stritch School of Medicine. Ranked a top national university by U.S. News & World Report, Loyola is also among a select group of universities recognized for community service and engagement by prestigious national organizations like the Carnegie Foundation and the Corporation for National and Community Service. To learn more about Loyola, visit LUC.edu, “like” us at Facebook.com/LoyolaChicago, or follow us on Twitter via @LoyolaChicago or @LoyolaNewsroom.