Owners and employees of five suburban gun shops and two of the shops themselves were accused of supplying guns to "straw purchasers" with clean police records who were clearly standing in for the actual buyers.
Authorities say gang members with long rap sheets use that method to get around state law barring convicted criminals from buying guns. While handgun sales are illegal within Chicago's city limits, officials say the gangs can get them easily in nearby suburbs.
"The message is very simple," U.S. Attorney Scott Lassar said. "If you violate federal gun laws, you're going to prison."
Despite Chicago's ban on handgun sales, the city is awash in gun violence, much of it attributed to drug-selling street gangs with thousands of members, such as the Gangster Disciples and the Vice Lords.
Police spokesman Pat Camden said that in 1998 Chicago had a total of 704 homicides, 536 of them attributable to guns. He said gangs members were responsible for 182 homicides, all but four attributable to guns.
Police officer Michael A. Ceriale, 26, was shot and killed in August 1998 while on a pre-dawn surveillance of a gang drug base in the South Side's crime-ridden Robert Taylor Homes public housing project. The gun came from a suburban store, Chuck's Gun Shop, not charged Wednesday.
A 1998 undercover investigation by Chicago police produced videotapes and other evidence that suburban dealers knowingly sell guns to straw purchasers. Results of the investigation prompted Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley in February to file a landmark $433 million civil suit against a dozen suburban gun shops and the firearms industry.
Four of the gun shops whose owners and employees were charged in the federal indictments were pinpointed in the Chicago police investigation.
Lassar said that the concerted attack by federal prosecutors, Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents and Chicago police, which has been named "Project Surefire," follows a similar campaign in Richmond, Va.
But unlike the Virginia version, operations in the Chicago area focus on suburban dealers who supply inner-city gangs.
President Clinton several months ago directed federal prosecutors across the nation to launch operations against illegal firearms sellers.
The indictments charged that some of the owners and employees sold guns to individuals not eligible to buy them. In other cases, attempts were made to hide the identity of the buyers with falsified receipts and Alcohol, Tax and Firearms forms.
In one case, Terrace Hampton, 29, of Chicago is charged with possessing a gun with the serial number removed and making straw purchases of 84 separate handguns from March 1997 to August 1998.
Kelvin Jones, 31, of Glendale Heihts, has purchased a total of 186 guns since July 1998, either directly or through straw buyers. Prosecutors said that since May alone he has directed the purchase of 150 guns that he then resold for profit.