“WE ARE HOPING TO UNDERSTAND HOW ONE MIGHT DISRUPT UNDERGROUND MARKETS IN GUNS, OR ALTER THE INCENTIVES FOR PEOPLE TO POSSESS, BRANDISH, OR USE WEAPONS IN POTENTIALLY LETHAL SITUATIONS.”
A recent survey of inmates at the Cook County Jail (CCJ) by the University of Chicago Crime Lab showed that an overwhelmingly large majority of criminals use firearms acquired in secondary markets rather than through gun shops, the Internet, or trade shows.
The study, “Sources of guns to dangerous people: What we learn by asking them,” will be published in Preventive Medicine’s Special Issue on the Epidemiology and Prevention of Gun Violence this month. The study has been available online since April 30. Information from the study in this article is based on this online version.
The study, which explored the sources through which criminals acquire guns, found that only two of 99 respondents had bought their weapons at a gun store.
The authors of the survey concede that the sample size of 99, representing a small subgroup selected by the Chicago Police Department (CPD) of prisoners incarcerated for violent crimes involving a firearm, is not statistically meaningful and note that the survey should be viewed as a “qualitative not a quantitative” exercise.
Most of the transactions were made with offenders’ family members and trusted acquaintances. 60 percent of the guns involved in violent crimes were either bought or traded underground; the remainder were shared, borrowed, or being held for others.
“We are hoping to understand how one might disrupt underground markets in guns, or alter the incentives for people to possess, brandish, or use weapons in potentially lethal situations,” said co-author of the study and Crime Lab co-director Harold A. Pollack.
The data in this study were obtained from an open-ended CCJ pilot survey of 99 inmates, in fall of 2013. The scope of the study was limited to a narrow subgroup of men disposed to crimes involving firearms; the respondents had been arrested an average of 13 times, with a range of two to 54 arrests. The survey does not cover the larger gun-owning population, which includes law-abiding Americans who legally acquire guns.
The survey was structured as a series of face-to-face conversations over several months. Interviewers asked inmates open-ended questions on the types of guns that the offenders had access to six months prior to their arrest and the transactions that provided said access. To ensure a high degree of credibility in the responses, the respondents were granted anonymity, and any part of the survey that could be used as indirect identification was redacted from file. Neither the interviewers nor the research team were given the names of the offenders. Incentive for participation was a $10 phone card, the same as what an inmate would expect for work undertaken at prison.
The study acknowledges that the CPD “has a considerable effect on the workings of the underground gun market through deterrence.” The fear of getting arrested for selling to an undercover cop buyer or mole (an informant to the police) or getting found out with a “dirty” gun (a gun previously fired in a crime) effectively deters gun transactions in the underground market.
The interviews attempted to understand the mindsets of the respondents in regards to gun use. Many felt compelled to possess a handgun to protect themselves: “I’d rather be judged by 12 than be carried by six,” one respondent said.
According to the study, “many…CCJ survey respondents were convinced that the police placed a high priority on guns and posed enough of a threat to warrant caution in dealing with buyers or sellers whom they did not know or have reason to trust.”
Thus, offenders turned to trusted contacts and associates to obtain guns.
The CPD appears to be an influential and omnipresent consideration in the underground gun market. The fear its presence incurs is already causing a dent in the market’s efficiency potential.
“[The respondents] are not sophisticated gun users or consumers, which increases the odds that we might prevent some of them from getting such easy access to guns,” Pollack said.
The study ends with the suggestion that perhaps a proliferation of the existing program’s model is needed to further daunt the underground gun market and change the face of Chicago’s violent crime scene.