The good news, such as it is: we actually have a good sense of where the guns used in crimes come from. The bad news: they come from lots of places—gun shops, gun shows, straw purchasers, family members, addicts selling their guns for drugs, burglaries. The biggest hurdle for gun control is that there are lots and lots of guns out there, and many routes into the hands of people who want them, although regulations do have an effect on the market.
* In 2004, David Bernstein wrote “The Biography of a Gun” for Chicago, tracing how one gun traveled 4,500 miles over 20 years, from Italy to California to Chicago (with an 11 year gap in between “due to recently passed legislation that bars all information regarding crime gun traces from being placed in the public record"), finally landing in the hands of a straw buyer with a valid FOID card at a store in Lansing, Illinois:
A former student at DeVry University who spent a year as a low-ranking Black Disciples gang “foot soldier,” Edmondson had loose ties to various gang members around his neighborhood. He told authorities he typically sold guns to the gangs in exchange for marijuana and cash. The Tanfoglio was sold for $325 to an alleged gang member whom Edmondson claimed to know only as Frank, a drug dealer for the gang. According to the confession, Edmondson instructed Frank to scrape off the serial number “if he was going to go out and do some crazy stuff.”
On Easter Sunday, 2003, a bullet from the gun almost killed a seven-year-old on the front steps of her West Englewood home.
Chicago’s handgun ban was recently struck down, but before that it was surrounded by hundreds of gun stores:
Altogether, there are 441 federally licensed dealers in suburban Cook County and the five collar counties, according to the latest ATF data. Most of these suburban shops, officials say, are law-abiding businesses that operate responsibly. But a small percentage—fewer than 1 percent, the city says—are responsible for nearly half of all the firearms used in crimes in Chicago.
It’s not just Chicago: “Prior to May 1999, a single gun store sold more than half of the guns recovered from criminals in Milwaukee, WI, shortly following retail sale.”
* Assuming that figure is accurate, it still leaves tens of thousands of then-illegal guns to account for. In 1992, Don Terry looked into the city’s illegal gun market and found that obtaining a gun on the street was also easy:
The gangs and other criminals also get weapons through barter, or “trade-ins.” The gangs trade narcotics for the guns of drug-addicted burglars, who will sell a $500 pistol for less than $100.
“We get half our guns through trade-ins with dope fiends,” said a gang member on the South Side. “If you wanted a gun right now, we could put in an order and you’d have it. It’s like going through the drive-through window. ‘Give me some fries, a Coke and a 9-millimeter.’ ”
Terry spoke to one gang leader who got his first gun from a drug addict, had just bought 27 guns an addict stole from a retired police officer’s house, and regularly went to gun shows to buy and then resell at a substantial profit on the black market—a combination of the many ways guns are exchanged in the city.
* Does that mean that gun control has no effect on guns in Chicago? Not necessarily. Four public policy researchers, including the University of Chicago’s Jens Ludwig and longtime gang researcher Sudhir Venkatesh, did an extensive study of the underground gun market in Grand Boulevard and Washington Park. They found a low number of sales, though “low” is obviously in the eye of the beholder: 1,400 per year in a population of 48,000, compared to 200,000-one million cocaine sales. Generally speaking, the guns were overpriced and of low quality, and even in the gang population ownership was “low,” around 30 percent.
But guns are typically very durable; their existence is persistent, and it doesn’t take many to do a lot of damage:
[G]un use in robbery was less prevalent in Chicago than in other cities but gun use in homicide was more prevalent than average.
One explanation for why generally low availability of guns to Chicago criminals does not yield unusually low gun use in violent crime is suggested by the previous discussion—the pervasiveness of gangs. Table 7 shows that around 20 percent of adult male arrestees in the Chicago DUF sample report membership in a gang at the time of their arrest, nearly twice as high as the rate reported in the next-largest city, Los Angeles…. No other city in the DUF sample reports current gang membership rates of even one-third Chicago’s level. Figures for lifetime rather than current gang membership also reveal Chicago to be an outlier.
While ownership among gang members may be low, or at least lower than one might assume, the authors found that gangs tightly controlled access to guns, “with most transactions in the form of loans or rentals with strings attatched,” for the purpose of gang wars, drug sales, and drug pick-ups and drop-offs—not for carrying around.
* One other interesting note from the report: the authors also tracked what states the guns came from, using ATF reports from 1999-2003. 48.3 percent came from Illinois; 11.6 percent from Indiana. Wisconsin and a handful of Southern states made up 1.8 to 2.8 percent. But just behind Indiana, at 9.6 percent, was Mississippi, suggesting the close social connections to the Delta I wrote about last week.
Photograph: Tyllie Barbosa / Gun courtesy of U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives