Gun violence in America is near an all-time high, with a series of recent high-profile attacks in places like Uvalde, Texas and a constant barrage of killings on the streets of major American cities. In response, Congress is discussing a bipartisan plan to strengthen gun safety laws, but the Supreme Court might be headed in the opposite direction.
They’re expected to rule any day now in a case that could loosen gun restrictions, limiting the ability of states to decide who can and can’t carry a gun outside the home. That decision could dramatically expand the scope of the Second Amendment. Unsurprisingly, the N.R.A. is backing the case. But surprisingly, they have found some unlikely allies, typically liberal public defenders in several large cities across the country.
Sharone Mitchell Jr. is the public defender for Cook County, which includes Chicago. He grew up there on the South Side of the city. Now, Chicago has some of the strictest gun laws in the country and also some of the highest rates of gun violence. That’s led Sharone to have complex views on what it means to keep a community safe, views that seem to contradict decades of liberal attempts to restrict gun access. From The New York Times opinion, I’m Lulu Garcia-Navarro, and this is “First Person.” Today, Sharone Mitchell Jr. and the progressive case against gun permits.
Sharone, can you tell me about the first time you remember seeing a gun or seeing the effects of what a gun can do?
I will say, you know, unfortunately I have not the best memory, but I certainly remember two things. I have two memories. I have a memory of a classmate getting shot. And I also remember seeing a kid, a friend of mine, who had a gun. This is certainly in grade school, probably sixth, seventh, eighth grade. I think those are the first memories, like personal memories, of guns and gun violence.
And when you saw that kid who had a gun, do you remember what you thought when you saw it and in what context that was?
I remember — and again, a little bit fuzzy, but it was around — listen, I got to stay safe, right? This is what I have to protect myself.
That’s what the kid said?
Yeah. It’s like I keep it on me or something like that, just in case, stuff like that. And I remember being scared.
But I remember understanding. It was kind of like I get it.
I think it was lucky to have parents that I think really preached the dangers around that. But I got it. It made sense to me.
Actually, another memory just came up. My mom was a librarian. And I used to spend a lot of time in the library. I was a really cool kid.
And I remember I checked out a book. I could check out books by myself. And it was about guns. And my mom was like, why are you checking this out? Why do you need this? And I remember that being one of the times that we had a conversation about the idea that they just are not things that keep you safe and they’re something I should stay away from.
So your friend is telling you guns keep him safe. Your mom is telling you they do the opposite. What did you say to her when she said that?
I mean, I took it in. I think that obviously living on the South Side, gun violence is something that you are — just all around you. There weren’t a whole lot of people that — sorry, there is some incident that’s going on outside of my window.
I can hear that.
Give me a second.
While we pause to wait for the sirens to stop, Sharone adjusted his microphone.
How about now?
Oh, so better. Yeah, yeah. Great. Are we good now?
There are still cars out there, but it looks like the folks that are racing toward the scene are not there. It does look like a car accident, which is good, and not a shooting. Yeah.
Yeah. So let’s start just —
I asked Sharone to pick up where he left off, with his perspective as a kid on the gun violence around him.
You know, you only have the perspective of yourself kind of when you’re that age.
So I don’t know if I thought that, oh my god, there’s so much gun violence going on around me. That was just what I knew.
You only know what you know.
Yeah, you only know what you know. It’s just something that you live with like you live with everything else going on in your life. Along with gun violence, there is just the random threat of violence growing up in the neighborhood, right, this idea of gangs and getting jumped, getting jumped for your Jordans or getting jumped for your Starter jacket. I think people had an interest in keeping themselves safe. My friend who showed me my first gun was of that same mindset. Like this is what I’m going to do to make sure that I protect myself.
Were people scared about the penalties of being caught with a gun? Because I believe handguns were banned at the time in the city, right?
Yeah. I think there’s a saying that it’s true. It’s a terrible saying, but I’d rather be judged by 12 than carried by six, and this idea that if this is the thing that’s going to keep me on this earth, that I’m going to go ahead and do that.
Instead of being carried by six pallbearers.
Exactly, exactly. So I think that was the thinking then. I think that that unfortunately is still the thinking now.
I mean, do you remember how the police interacted in your neighborhood? I mean, was policing of guns a big part of the story of guns in your neighborhood at that time?
I think policing in general. I don’t know if it was just policing of guns, but it was policing in general. I always had this fear of police — not just around police violence, but also incarceration, getting accused of doing something you didn’t do.
So I definitely recall a time — it was only a couple blocks up from my house — where the cops pulled a gun on me. I was walking down the street, and they were racing down the street. And a cop car stopped really quickly. They told me to get down. I got down.
They got a call. And they just zoomed off. It wasn’t really a long incident. They were looking for somebody. But I certainly think that that incident played a large role.
How old were you?
I was probably somewhere between 12, 13, 14, you know. And one of the things I remember about it as well, that it was scary, but it was totally like —
it was traumatic to me, but it wasn’t unusual to me. And I hate that it was so normalized.
So you grew up in the ‘90s in a neighborhood in Chicago where guns were fairly common and the police were always around also with guns. When did you realize that that was unusual? I mean, as you said earlier, we only know what we know, right?
But when did you start to realize that your experience growing up wasn’t like everybody else’s maybe?
Yeah. I think it was when I started to go to school. I went to a predominantly Black grade school, lived in a predominantly Black neighborhood, went to a predominantly Black high school. And then when I went to college, I went to a predominantly white institution, the University of Illinois. I started to meet more white folks and have conversations with white folks, and you really got to see how your experiences were different.
Well, tell me about that. How did that play out? What stood out to you in your college experience that made you think actually things do play out differently for different folks?
I think one of the first things that I learned was that — you look at the numbers. You see who’s arrested for drugs and who’s arrested for consuming drugs and selling drugs. And you would think that, man, Black people do a whole lot more drugs than white people, but there were white folks around me doing a whole lot of drugs in college, and nobody was getting arrested for it. If Green Street in Champaign was police like Halsted Street around my way in Chicago, things would look a whole lot different when it came to who was in jail, who was in prison for drug use, and for, quite frankly, a whole lot of things.
I mean, there are a lot of different ways I can imagine responding to the realization that people were policed really differently. You laughed when you talk about it now. How did you feel about it then though?
I felt I was kind of bamboozled. I just didn’t know that there were people out there that did way more drugs openly, and they weren’t scared of getting arrested. It was shocking. And it’s more of an ironic laugh than a real laugh. It was like, wow.
I always knew that the system wasn’t working really well. I would soon become a public defender, and there was always something in me that drove that. But to see, I think, the thinly veiled hypocrisy of the system had just an incredible impact on my development.
When you become a public defender, by definition that means you’re representing people accused of crimes who can’t afford to hire a lawyer.
How did guns figure into those cases in those early years?
You know, in the public defender’s office, the more experience you get, the more complicated and more serious cases you get. So early on, I did not have a lot of gun cases, just how our system was set up. But as I became a more experienced attorney, more and more of our cases, my cases, involved guns. The reality is that most of those gun cases are actually gun possession cases. They are people who are accused of illegally possessing a firearm. That was the vast majority of my cases.
We all know all of the things that go on in the big city — drugs, there are robberies, there are allegations of sexual assault, there are thefts, there are burglaries.
The criminal code is literally thousands and thousands of pages long. But 25 percent of our cases are just gun possession cases. So it is something that essentially dominates our court calls.
And just to be clear, that’s the only crime these people are being charged with a quarter of the time, just having a gun?
Illegally having a gun, yeah.
So can you talk me through the circumstances in which people are being arrested for gun possession not involving another crime? I mean, what typically draws the attention of the police in the first place?
Typically a search, you know, an encounter. Police could pull people over in a car. They could stop people on the street. We know that certain communities are policed very heavily. There’s lots of contact folks will have with police. We know that there are similar levels of possession of guns amongst other races.
However, when you look at the numbers, the numbers are actually quite shocking. About 33 percent of the entire state’s unlawful use of a weapon Class 4 charges, about 33 percent of those charges are stemmed from arrest in 11 Chicago neighborhoods. So the entire state — take the entire state of Illinois — 33 percent of those are from 11 neighborhoods in Chicago. So we’re talking young Black men in very particular neighborhoods.
And for people who were carrying, they’re being charged with illegal possession presumably because they don’t have a permit? I mean, why weren’t they obtaining the proper permits?
Yeah so you know, there are a number of reasons. It is a relatively complicated process for a person who may not be great at putting together paperwork or may not have a lot of extra money. But we also know that to get this permit, there has to be essentially a sign-off from the government.
And maybe I’ve got a drug felony in my background. And if you have a felony in your background, then you can’t legally possess. So these are folks that would come to us. So a number of reasons why people would not end up with these permits.
OK, so you’ve been talking about the application of these gun laws. But why, in your view, do they actually exist in the first place? I mean, what is their intention?
I think that these gun laws exist based upon a very real and understandable reaction to gun violence in our communities. Gun violence in our communities is out of control. And there are too many of our brothers, and sisters, and mothers, and grandmothers that have buried young people way too early. So I understand why the system has responded in the way that it has.
But the real, I think, devil in the details is that — maybe it’s not a detail — is that the way we’ve done this has not reduced the supply and, or the demand of guns in the city. Every year, our police pull 5,000, 6,000, 8,000, 10,000, 12,000 guns off the street. But the amount of guns that are left on these streets is like a number that people haven’t even begun to calculate yet because the number is so high.
We know from studies that folks still have very — when they feel unsafe, have very easy access to these guns. So what this response has done — I think first off, it’s important to note that they haven’t reduced the supply or demand of guns. But what it has done is put people in prison. It disrupts their entire life. If they have a job, they don’t have it anymore. If they had an educational opportunity, they don’t have anymore. If they were getting benefits from the government, they don’t have those anymore. If their children relied on them for support, they weren’t there. And all of this incarceration, like we talked about before, is incredibly concentrated.
So when we talk about safety, I think on one hand folks really think about, OK, if this person has a gun, right, we need to put them in prison, and that keeps us safe. That’s this very, I think, myopic view of safety. But in reality, the carnage that these prison stays and these criminal records are doing to a very concentrated group of people is having far, far, far greater impacts on the safety of the entire community.
So I think all that might start to explain how in your current role you come to hold what I think for many will sound like a surprising view, which is that you are simultaneously very concerned about the role of guns in your community, but you’ve also publicly endorsed a position on gun control that is being advanced by the N.R.A., yes?
Yeah. I think it’s complicated if you think about it for 12 seconds, but if you take two more minutes to think about it, I think it’s understandable.
Let’s talk some more about this position.
Fast forwarding to now, you’re in charge of the Cook County public defender’s office.
You oversee hundreds of attorneys who are just like you, once were on the front lines defending clients. And in that role you’ve come out and supported the National Rifle Association in a huge gun rights case before the Supreme Court this session. The N.R.A. is looking to defend the rights of people in New York state who were denied permits that would allow them to conceal carry.
It could have huge implications for loosening all kinds of gun laws in this country, and so it’s very unpopular with a lot of progressive groups and people you would seem to often be aligned with. So let’s just start with, first, how comfortable are you backing a case like this when I presume so much of the work that the N.R.A. does is very much at odds with your values?
I think that my values are defined by the issues that are put before me and not the people who decide to take up that certain issue, if that makes sense, right? So while being on the same side of the N.R.A. is not something that I’m going to be putting on my LinkedIn, I am supportive of not sending people to prison because they don’t have a license. And I don’t support laws being enforced in a way that only certain types of people go to prison for this charge. A system that is just so on its face racist is something that we need to work against.
So just to make sure I’m clear, you want to see the system of licensing and permitting for guns go away?
I think that the current — how the licensing exists in New York and how the licensing exists in Illinois is broken. The scheme doesn’t limit access to guns, like that’s the whole point. I am very much for proposals that actually reduce the flow of guns in our community. I’m very much for repealing all of these legal fictions that give the gun industry immunity away from civil lawsuit. I’m very much for prohibiting the manufacture of assault weapons that are literally ripping our children apart or prohibiting the production of high-capacity magazines. I’m for just a host of things that are actually going to reduce the flow of guns in our community.
But what I’m saying is that what the Supreme Court is looking at is not doing that. We have licenses on the books right now. And every morning, we get a reminder in Chicago and in almost every other urban area how that strategy fails.
For most of the people who hold the view though that there are too many guns in this country, that guns are a bad thing, what you’re putting forward, getting rid of requirements that guns should be licensed, is pretty much everything they’ve been fighting against. The case taken to the Supreme Court by the N.R.A. is about expanding gun access. So it seems to me that you’ve reached a kind of place in your view of what’s possible in this country where the only effective solution you see when it comes to guns is one that acknowledges that they’re going to be ubiquitous in American life?
I just think it’s a little bit more complicated than that. So if we look at the New York case, right now what exists is that the New York Police Department can basically tell people — they have unilateral discretion to determine who gets a license for a gun. And then that same police department turns around and only arrests Black and brown people for not having gun licenses.
I think that there is a better way of exploring safety.
And I think we need to be a little bit more, I think, specific when we talk about what gun control is. Because I would actually argue that this scheme isn’t gun control. It doesn’t control any guns.
So that view has put you in the same camp as some unlikely figures. We’ve talked about the N.R.A.. I want to ask you about another that has emerged in recent weeks in the wake of the elementary school shooting in Texas.
- archived recording (greg abbott)
I know that people like to try to oversimplify this. Let’s talk about some real facts.
Governor Greg Abbott was, of course, asked about gun control, and he specifically talked about your city and its gun violence problem.
- archived recording (greg abbott)
There are, quote, “real” gun laws in Chicago. I hate to say this, but there are more people who were shot every weekend in Chicago than there are in schools in Texas. And we need to realize that people who think that, well, maybe if we just implement tougher gun laws, it’s going to solve it. Chicago, and L.A., and New York disprove that thesis.
And he said Chicago proves that there’s no point in gun control. It’s not a real solution.
- archived recording (greg abbott)
And so if you’re looking for a real solution, Chicago teaches that what you’re talking about is not a real solution.
Now, Texas has essentially gotten rid of its licensing and permitting system. So is Governor Abbott also now someone you are in some ways aligned with on this?
No, because Governor Abbott is using Chicago and not looking at Chicago the city. He’s using Chicago as basically a euphemism for Black people. When people say, what about Chicago, they’re not looking to have a detailed conversation about what’s happening in the city. What they are saying is, well, what about those Black people over there? So this idea that Governor Abbott is studying these laws, right, and has looked at Chicago, and decided that certain laws don’t work and certain laws do work is something I just fundamentally reject. I don’t feel bad about my position because Governor Abbott or other folks decide to take on that messaging.
This conservative Supreme Court is expected to side with the N.R.A. in this case. Let’s say the decision goes the way you want. Paint me a picture of the best possible version of America’s relationship to guns in the world you’re imagining, the world in which the N.R.A. wins this case. What does that look like?
I guess my point is that if the Supreme Court were to strike down this particular licensing scheme, which has all types of problems with it, I don’t think that that means that gun control is dead in the United States. I believe that it could be an opportunity, right, to really pursue policies that actually try to control guns. One of the things that could come out of all of this is that the Supreme Court says that the current licensing scheme is broken and that the legislator needs to go back and fix the licensing scheme, and that there are lots of problems in the licensing scheme. I think that’d be a good thing, to destroy that system.
The N.R.A. certainly isn’t presenting this case to the Supreme Court because they’re trying to restrict access to guns. I mean, they’re asking to expand it. They believe that this will allow people more access to guns, not less.
Yeah. I can’t speak for the N.R.A.. I am a person who wants to reduce the supply of guns in my community. That is a position that the N.R.A. does not hold. Through my career I’ve gotten death threats from the N.R.A. folks. I’m not a friend of the N.R.A., so —
I think this is an issue that public defenders and the N.R.A. happen to be on the same side of this position. And I think it speaks to that complexity of this whole gun violence debate, this idea that this is the N.R.A. side. How could you be on the N.R.A. side? To me it’s just —
it does not paint a clear picture of the complexity of the situation.
And I think that there is a danger of saying, oh, this is the N.R.A.‘s position. And because this is the N.R.A.‘s position, it’s not worth looking at. It’s not worth listening to. And I think that’s a real danger. We’ve seen these gun registration laws to have incredibly —
I mean, breathtakingly —
it’s tough for me to put into words how discriminatory these laws have been. And it’s tough to put into words how ineffective they have been at keeping our community safe.
If the N.R.A. loses, you know, if New York state wins, my community doesn’t get any safer.
There aren’t going to be less people murdered every single day in my city. And I’m really, really, really, really interested in solutions that could change that dynamic.
Sharone, thank you very much.
Thank you very much for this conversation. I know it’s incredibly complicated, but I’m excited that we had that chance to talk.
Today’s episode was produced by Olivia Natt, Courtney Stein, Derek Arthur and Cristal Duhaime. It was edited by Stephanie Joyce and Lisa Tobin. Engineering by Isaac Jones. Original music by Isaac Jones and Carol Sabouraud. Fact checking by Will Peischel and Derek Arthur.
The rest of the “First Person” team includes Christina Djossa, Jason Pagano and Kaari Pitkin. Special thanks to Kristina Samulewski, Shannon Busta, Kate Sinclair, Jeffrey Miranda, Paula Szuchman, Irene Noguchi, Patrick Healy and Katie Kingsbury.