Trillions of dollars of federal COVID-19 relief checks have been sent out across the country to help people buy food and pay rent. In Chicago, they’re also helping to fuel gun sales — legally and illegally.
That’s according to authorities on the subject — including a 25-year-old convicted felon in West Garfield Park who says he spent some of his coronavirus stimulus money to buy a gun on the street.
“You gotta do what you gotta do to stay safe out here,” said the man, speaking on the condition his name not be used.
Law enforcement officials say they’re been building cases against people who have used their pandemic-relief checks to buy guns and illegally resell them on the street.
Law-abiding people are buying guns with their relief checks, too.
“It’s a concern,” said Teny Gross, executive director of the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago, a not-for-profit agency whose mission includes mediating conflicts on the West Side and Southwest Side in an effort to avoid violence.
Tio Hardiman, executive director of Violence Interrupters, a not-for-profit Chicago peace initiative, said the two first rounds of federal relief checks have helped fuel a hot market for guns in low-income neighborhoods in Chicago.
“Yes, people are using money they are receiving from COVID-19 resources to buy firearms,” Hardiman said, describing illegal gun possession as out of control. “We hear stories about people selling semi-automatics out of shopping bags these days.”
Though guns have been easy to pick up illegally in Chicago for decades, Hardiman and others say that fears over the huge rise in violence that Chicago has seen over the past year are leading to an even wider proliferation of firearms that’s being seen citywide.
Last year, the number of killings in Chicago was up 55% over the previous year. And the numbers are continuing to soar.
Illinois set a record for lawful gun purchases last year. The Illinois State Police reported more than 554,000 gun-transfer inquiries in 2020 compared with 385,000 in 2019.
In Chicago, law enforcement officers, speaking on the condition their names not be used, said they, too, attribute the influx of guns in the city in part to the COVID relief checks that went out over the past year.
The first round provided checks of up to $1,200. The second checks were for up to $600. And the $1.9 trillion relief package approved by Congress last month provides up to $1,400 more per person, with families eligible to receive up to $1,400 for each dependent. The Internal Revenue Service has said most of that latest money was expected to be distributed electronically by this past week.
One law enforcement official said investigators have found that scams involving CARES Act pandemic grants for small businesses to make their payrolls are being used to pay for weapons used in gun-trafficking.
The officials also said law-abiding citizens buying guns at suburban stores have told clerks they’re using “COVID money” from their relief checks to pay for them.
Given the rise in violence, Hardiman said, “A lot of people living in the heart of the city have to protect themselves.”
Gross said “it’s not an irrational decision” for people to buy guns these days– “but we will regret this arms race.”
The huge demand for guns is driving up their price on the street: a Glock pistol that might have sold for $500 a few years ago is now going for more than $700, a law-enforcement source said.
He and Hardiman said law enforcement officials need to do more to crack down on illegal gun-traffickers.
“The ATF and FBI are not doing a good job intercepting the illegal gun trade in Chicago,” Hardiman said.
Gross said law enforcement officials should consider giving people caught with illegal weapons deals in exchange for providing information about where they got them. He even suggested putting the faces of convicted gun traffickers “on a billboard on the highway.”
Gross said the demand for guns is driven by more than just the need for protection. In places where there’s a lack of hope, a gun is a symbol of manhood. The COVID-19 relief checks just make it easier to buy one.
The best way to reduce gun-carrying — and violence — is to provide those same people with job opportunities, Gross said. He said he hopes President Joe Biden’s proposed $2 trillion plan to improve America’s infrastructure will provide some of those needed jobs.