The Austin Chronicle tells how a chrome, pocket-sized, .22-caliber Jennings Firearms Inc. pistol happened to be involved in the case of a man shot dead by a police officer. The Chronicle says the story is a “stark, almost textbook illustration of the difficulty of enforcing the laws regulating the ownership and possession of handguns – as well as the virtually inevitable results.” Many firearms diverted from the black market, says the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), are connected to the illegal drug trade. “That’s pretty much where they all go,” says Austin Police Detective T.J. Vineyard. There are guns stolen from their legal owners by drug users looking to trade them for dope, and there are guns that drug dealers carry to protect their stash.
Many police officers believe that policing the gun trade is hopeless, says Duke University economist Philip Cook, a expert on the connection between gun availability and crime. “The problem is that they’re wrong.” Guns aren’t easily obtained by street criminals, Cook says, in part because they “don’t have a lot of cash, and when they do, they have other things they want to spend it on.” When police make firearm enforcement a priority, they’re “able to tighten the screws farther in,” reducing the opportunity for “prohibited” people to get firearms. In a 2006 study, Cook and other researchers sought to determine how readily available guns were on the streets of Chicago, where private handgun possession is banned. They made surprising discoveries – notably, that the long Chicago police history of making firearm policing a priority actually reduced the likelihood that drug dealers and gang members would trade in guns or even carry firearms. As a Chicago gang leader explained: “Police don’t like [guns] moving around here, man. We stay away from that shit, see, ’cause we already got enough trouble with the police.”