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Attorney General Merrick Garland Addresses Gun Trafficking During Chicago Visit

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The nation's top law enforcement officer traveled to Chicago this week to unveil a new strategy to try to fight illegal gun trafficking. Attorney General Merrick Garland visited with police and community leaders.

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MERRICK GARLAND: I'm not here from Washington to tell you what to do. I'm here from Washington to find out what we can do to help you.

SIMON: NPR's Carrie Johnson was along for the trip and joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Happy to be here, Scott.

SIMON: We've heard so much really in the past year about gun violence rising in Chicago. What's the Justice Department saying they want to do about it?

JOHNSON: For sure, homicides and shootings are up, and the DOJ is launching a strike force to try to get at the source of a lot of this illegal gun trade. You know that gun laws in Chicago are strong, but the problem is that guns are coming into the city from places like downstate, in Indiana, in Wisconsin. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms says it's not big tractor-trailers full of guns. Instead, these weapons are like ants marching into the city. And it can be really hard to find the source of the weapons until after they're used in very violent crimes. So now the Justice Department wants to change that. They want to use technology, partner with Chicago police, and they want to build strong contacts between police in Chicago and prosecutors in these other places that are the source of these weapons.

SIMON: And the attorney general spent time with the community groups also in the city. And what did they tell him?

JOHNSON: Yeah, Garland spent a while at St. Agatha's Church in North Lawndale. Right near there, just about 24 hours earlier, there were two big shootings. A teenager died. Another man was grazed in the forehead by a bullet. That man actually participates in a group designed to help men at risk of gun violence. And Garland sat down with some of the members in that group called READI Chicago. Eddie Bocanegra directs that program. I caught up with him later that night.

EDDIE BOCANEGRA: I think too often there's a disconnection from the people who make policy decisions without necessarily being well-informed about what's really happening in its communities.

JOHNSON: Bocanegra says this federal government really needs to invest in local programs that get to the root causes of some of this violence, things like social services and racism.

BOCANEGRA: We're talking about years, years of chronic trauma that have been exposed, you know, issues with trust with institutions like law enforcement and in working and living in communities that have been broken down.

JOHNSON: The attorney general, Scott, also heard from a woman who lost her son to gun violence, but that part of the meeting was private.

SIMON: Carrie, how did the attorney general respond to hear about all of this, this heartbreak happening now under his watch in what is, after all, his hometown?

JOHNSON: Yeah, he was pretty sober about all this. People in the room told me he asked a lot of questions, and he wanted to know what the data showed about which social service programs and technology seem to actually work to prevent shootings.

SIMON: Carrie, we're Chicagoans. Let me ask what Chicagoans often ask each other. You really took in a baseball game?

JOHNSON: (Laughter) I did, Scott. But in my defense, this was a work trip. It was a game played by 11- and 12-year-old boys, part of the Police Athletic League in the city. The attorney general was there. He mingled with the players. He even put on an orange jersey at one point over his blue (unintelligible) shirt. And you won't believe this, Scott. Maybe you will. We had a really joyful moment inside the ballpark.

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DICK DURBIN: Inside-the-park home run. That's what it said.

JOHNSON: That's Senator Dick Durbin marveling at the inside-the-ballpark home run that we witnessed. The attorney general, of course, later went out of his way to shake that kid's hand.

SIMON: That sounds like a wonderful moment. NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson, thanks so much.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.