Gun violence is a high-priority issue in Washington, D.C., and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin seeks to pass legislation with stricter penalties for those who use illegal weapons to commit crimes.
Wednesday afternoon, he was in East St. Louis at the federal courthouse to learn about the challenges that state, county and local law enforcement officials face in their jurisdictions with gun violence and gun trafficking.
Durbin also came to brief them about his bill, which would prevent those who can legally buy weapons from doing so and then putting them in others hands, who may then go on to commit crimes.
Durbin expects the bill pass in the Senate next month.
Seated at the table in the federal courthouse in East St. Louis alongside Durbin were: St. Clair County State's Attorney Brendan Kelly, Illinois State Police Lt. Col. Todd Kilby, First Assistant U.S. Attorney James Porter, Calvin Dye, chairman of the Metro-east Police Commission and St. Clair County Sheriff Richard "Rick" Watson.
Durbin, who sits on the Judiciary Committee, is sponsoring a package of gun violence bills that will be considered for passage in the Senate when it reconvenes after next week. One very important piece of the legislation for Durbin is the Stop Illegal Trafficking in Firearms Act, which he crafted along with a bi-partisan group of colleagues, including U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.).
This particular part of the legislation will "shut down the pipeline of illicit guns that land in the hands of criminals and gangs by punishing and deterring straw purchasing," which Durbin told reporters is an all too common practice. "Straw purchasing is when someone with a clean background purchases a gun for another who cannot buy one for themselves.
"Time and again, I've heard from law enforcement leaders about how easily illegal guns made their way to the street," Durbin said. "Straw purchasers flaunt our nation's gun laws to help arm thugs and criminals without fear of serious consequences."
Durbin said that as Congress has started to debate legislation to reduce gun violence over the last few months, he has met with law enforcement leaders across Illinois to get their input.
"The bottom line is we need to keep guns out of the hands of people who have no business owning them," Durbin said.
Durbin called the Stop Illegal Trafficking in Firearms Act "a common-sense solution." He said the Judiciary Committee passed the legislation and he is hopeful that his colleagues in the Senate will also pass the legislation when they reconvene after Easter.
Durbin said current law is too weak. Right now, straw purchasers can only be prosecuted federally under false statement laws that are difficult to prove and carry low penalties, Durbin said.
If the Stop Illegal Trafficking in Firearms Act is passed, a straw purchaser will face up to 15 years in federal prison and that could increase to 25 years if the straw purchaser knows or has reasonable cause to believe that the gun will be used to commit a crime of violence.
"The bill also creates the first federal statute specifically criminalizing firearms trafficking, setting a penalty of up to 15 years imprisonment when a person transports or transfers guns to another person knowing or having reason to believe that the transferee's possession of the gun would violate federal law," said Durbin.
Durbin said gun violence is serious in Washington, D.C., and Chicago. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is trying to trace the guns that come into Chicago, Durbin said.
"There are six times the guns there per capita as there are in New York. Ten percent of them come from Mississippi to Chicago; 20 percent come from other areas," Durbin said, adding that East St. Louis, his hometown, has 18 times the violent crime that it should have per capita.
"It leads the nation per capita. We gotta work on that," Durbin said. Then, he engaged local law enforcement in conversation about the violence they deal with daily.
Kelly told Durbin that many of the guns used to commit crimes in the metro-east are getting into the community from outside through ways that should be covered by federal law "and they are not."
He said some progress has been made thanks to the hard work of the cooperating partners.
He said Illinois State Police, the U.S Attorney's Office and the State's Attorney's Office "are trying to do everything we can to fight violent crime in Brooklyn, Washington Park, Alorton and East St. Louis."
He said the special detail known as the Working Against Violent Elements (WAVE) detail and local law enforcement works very aggressively and has made some difference in the violent crime "but we still have a long ways to go."
"Gun violence here is disproportionate," Kelly said. He said local law enforcement needs as many tools and resources as it can get to fight violent crime in the metro-east.
Kelly said the Metro-east Police Commission is trying to build credibility and professionalism in the departments that are a part of it "so the people have the police departments they deserve." The Metro-east Police Commission is the brainchild of the State's Attorney's Office. The bill was introduced in April 2012, and in January, Gov. Pat Quinn made appointments to the commission.
It is made up of law enforcement officials, attorneys, a judge, representation from the Fraternal Order of Police and representatives of the four communities that are a part of the commission.
Durbin commended State Sen. James Clayborne and State Rep. Eddie Lee Jackson for getting legislation passed in Springfield that paved the way for the commission
Kelly noted to Durbin that a big problem for East St. Louis and its surrounding communities is that people who don't have clean backgrounds are getting guns.
To make an impact in violent crime, Kelly told Durbin law enforcement "needs all of the tools it can get."
Durbin asked Kilby what state police are doing to trace guns. He said they have an electronic tracing system that traces the weapon all the way back to the manufacturer. He said "We go through the records to determine who sold the gun to who."
Kilby said quite a few guns that come to this area come from Chicago and Mississippi, and some come from local stores. Some were left unsecured and were taken from relatives or stolen in home burglaries, he said.
Durbin asked Porter what the U.S. Attorney's Office was doing to curb the violence. He said, "We partner closely with the State's Attorney's Office to look at every gun that comes in. And any one we can pursue federally, we do."
He said his boss, U.S. Attorney Stephen Wigginton, is on Vice President Joe Biden's commission on coming up with new gun laws and ways of dealing with this. "He is proactive and supports tighter, stricter laws," Porter said.
Durbin asked him whether there were certain gun laws that flow toward local prosecution and some that are kept and prosecuted at the federal level. Porter told him the U.S. Attorney's Office looks at every case and determines whether it can successfully be prosecuted federally.
"We defer to local authorities if they want the cases. Sometimes, we have better tools and resources than the State's Attorney's Office," he said.
Porter said his office often writes "leverage letters" saying what we believe we can get out of the case."
Durbin said there are two other gun violence bills that will be considered next month. They are Protecting Responsible Gun Sellers Act, which would require background checks for the private sale of firearms.
It would also require that a lost or stolen gun be reported within 24 hours. Private sellers would have to keep records of firearm transactions and anyone who does not comply would be sentenced to a year in jail.
The other bill is called the "School and Campus Safety Enhancement Act." It reauthorizes the U.S. Department of Justice's Secure Our School's program which provides grants for security and creates a national center for campus public safety that provides training and best practices to colleges and universities.
Durbin said debate on the Senate floor will start in a couple of weeks and he is hopeful that "Congress can pass legislation that will help make life safer in my old hometown."