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President Trump threatened last week to send the “feds” in to clean up Chicago if the city doesn’t do something to reduce the escalating murder rate that has made the gang-infested Windy City among the most dangerous metropolitan areas in the world. What the president doesn’t seem to realize is that he has the tools to deal with the crisis without so drastic a step.
Chicago has turned into a free-fire zone for gangbangers and other thugs not because Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the U.S. Justice Department during the Obama years lacked the resources and tools to deal with the problem, but because they refused to use them. The mayor and his defenders respond to those demanding action by attempting less successfully every day by trying to pass the buck. Mr. Emanuel claims the city doesn’t have enough money to hire more police officers and that if Mr. Trump wants to help, he ought to find a way to give him more. At the same time, he doubts even that will work because the real problem isn’t that the city is overrun with gangs and criminals or that his police force is demoralized and unable to do its job. Rather, it’s because Congress hasn’t passed the “common-sense” gun control laws he and President Obama sought as a magical way to solve the problems of a crime-ridden city.
Before leaving office, Mr. Obama and his Justice Department released a widely heralded but poorly documented report of abuses by Chicago police officers, blaming much of the current crisis on such abuses and the “loss of trust” in the police by Chicago residents. The mayor, seeing yet another opportunity to pass the buck, has said he will sign a federal consent decree that will further sap the morale of a department already on the verge of collapse. Doing so will only make matters worse.
The Manhattan Institute’s Heather McDonald, who has spent as much or more time than anyone in the country studying the effects of the demonization of police on the situation in Chicago and elsewhere, observed correctly in a recent Wall Street Journal piece that what Mr. Trump ought to do is recognize the almost purely local nature of policing, and “tear up the Chicago report and declare that the federal government stands behind proactive policing.”
Ms. McDonald argues persuasively that the most important step the new administration can take would be to send “the right message: The Justice Department will be vigilant in monitoring police abuses, but it understands that police officers need no longer fear that stopping and questioning people engaged in suspicious behavior will draw the condemnation of the federal government.”
Ms. McDonald, however, misses the other tool in the toolbox that lies unused. She acknowledges in passing that the administration should encourage stricter enforcement of existing laws against the criminal use of firearms, but suggests the impact of doing so would be, as she puts it, “a longer term matter.” History and experience suggests she is wrong on this one as the enforcement of existing firearms laws through a local-federal partnership can have dramatic short- and long-term effects on violent crime.
Mr. Obama liked to talk about “gun violence,” which is an essentially meaningless term that includes police shootings, suicides, accidental shootings and shootings initiated by the severely mentally ill. The problem in Chicago is traceable to gun crime, not gun violence, and while we may still be grappling with how to reduce suicides and incidents involving the mentally ill, experience tells us dealing with gun crime is conceptually much easier: You make committing a crime with a gun or illegally possessing a firearm acts that will lead to swift punishment.
Criminals, including gangbangers, are at least semi-rational and if they know that illegally possessing or using a gun will land them in jail or prison, that knowledge leads to changes in their behavior. In Chicago, they know they won’t face increased jail time or risk certain prosecution for gun crime and act accordingly. Chicago politicos keep calling for more gun control laws while all but refusing to enforce the laws already on the books.
In the mid-‘90s, the National Rifle Association worked with a courageous U.S. attorney and local law enforcement in Richmond, Va., which at the time had the fourth-highest homicide rate in the country. The result was “Project Exile,” with federal law enforcement promising to prosecute illegal gun use under federal law with no exceptions and no plea bargains. Within two years, the murder rate in Richmond was cut in half, gun-wielding gangbangers and thieves were behind bars and the city returned to normal. The project ended because the Clinton Justice Department argued that prosecuting individual criminals was a “waste of prosecutorial resources,” and that attitude lives today in Chicago.
The president and his new attorney general, once confirmed, need to call in the U.S. attorney and let him know that henceforth, gun crime in Chicago will be prosecuted. While they’re at it, they might want to tie crime control funds going into the city to cooperating in the effort to get the killers off the street and into prison rather than to destroying the morale of the police by turning a crime-fighting force into paper-pushing bureaucrats.
There is no single solution to the crisis in Chicago, but Mr. Trump has tools that will work in both the long and short terms.
• David A. Keene is Opinion editor at The Washington Times and the former president of the National Rifle Association.
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