It’s hard to root for the bad guys. And I’m an optimist, so I’m always the person at the movies hoping for a happy ending.

But the work that we do at The Chicago Reporter isn’t always so clear-cut. This month’s cover investigation is a prime example. Reporter Angela Caputo has unearthed some startling statistics that poke holes into commonly held perceptions about a group of people many of us would consider antagonists. They’re Chicago’s youth convicted as adults on gun charges.

It’s hard for most people to sympathize with these children, except for maybe the people who gave birth to them. These teens are the ones who pretty much carry the blame in the court of public opinion for seasonal crime sprees that snuffed out the lives of hundreds of young Chicagoans.

But in taking a closer look at many of these cases, Caputo’s story reveals a troubling trend. For many of the teens charged, it was never clear that they actually had a gun. And in nearly half of the cases, no smoking gun was ever retrieved.

This fact wasn’t enough for me to throw my support behind teens with guns. That will probably never happen. But it did make me stop and think: If the children we’re putting behind bars for gun crimes never had a gun, is the community really any safer?

Caputo takes her research a step further by sampling more than half of the cases in which minors were convicted of gun crimes to see the impact of their crimes. How many lives were snuffed out? How many thousands in cash and cars were lifted?

All told, one person was murdered, fewer than a dozen were shot and only enough cash was stolen to buy a one-way ticket overseas—hardly the crimes of the hardened criminals politicians have sought to lock up.

The Illinois General Assembly is looking into a law that could put hundreds of additional young people in the adult court system, which is where 17-year-olds on gun charges end up. The new tough-on-crime law would push 15- and 16-year-olds on gun charges there as well. But if it’s not clear that these minors had guns to begin with, do we want to automatically transfer them to adult court?

If our communities are going to be safer, then perhaps these cases need to be vetted more thoroughly. And we need to be sure we’re putting the hardened criminals behind bars.